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February 12, 2005

Oddly, it is a good grief, even after all this time.


(From Peanuts, January 3rd, 2000.)

Five years ago, on February 12, 2000, Charles Schultz's last Peanuts strip was being printed for the Sunday funnies, even as Charles Schultz himself passed on into that good night, once and for all. It was perhaps the best sense of timing in comic strip history.

A lot of people will claim that Schultz's best years were long behind him -- I know more than a few who were bitching then that Peanuts was taking up a slot that their strip some more recent comic could fill.

I remember being so angry at those people.

Actually angry. Peanuts wasn't a 'multigenerational' comic. Every last strip was drawn by Schultz. Every last joke came from his pen. And maybe they didn't like it any more, but I liked it. I'm glad he could essentially do the work he loved for his entire life. I'm glad he got a chance to know how much we all loved him. And I miss him. I miss him on the comics page, even if there are reruns there now. I miss reading stories of cartoonists meeting "Sparky" and being stunned at how accessible and friendly and supportive he was. I miss knowing that in a world of rock and pop he managed to get piano jazz on his television shows and specials because he liked piano jazz. I miss the references to skaters I'd never heard of. I miss the words "Sopwith Camel."

Fantagraphics is publishing the finest public service I know -- the complete Peanuts, in sequential order, one book at a time. I have the first two books, from back at the beginning of the 50's. I'm stunned at how good they are. How clean, how well produced, how cheerful. I'm stunned at how much energy there is and how much evolution the comic needed to have. Those early days... I don't know how better to put it... read like a webcomic. Frenetic, trying out anything, too intelligent for the intended audience. This was an age where Charlie Brown was sometimes a troublemaker. This was an age where the three leads were Charlie Brown, Shermie and Violet.

Charlie Brown... Shermie... and Violet.

By the end of the second volume, most of the gang has shown up. Schroeder is playing Beethoven (something I still hear as "beeth" "oven" in my head because I first learned that word from Peanuts, and I didn't know how to pronounce it), though he went through a sequence where he absolutely stunned everyone because he could play complicated music on a toy piano. (The black keys didn't even exist -- they were just painted on.) We saw Lucy as a baby, growing slowly into a fussbudget. By the end of the second volume Linus and his blanket are there, but he isn't talking yet. Snoopy is a puppy, and acts exclusively like a dog. Pig Pen has just shown up.

I'm going to own every last one of these volumes. When we hit the Sixties, we'll meet Five, Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Shermie will finish his disappearance into the background. Freida with the naturally curly hair will show up. Woodstock will show up. Rerun will be born.

And thousands of jokes we're all used to a million times over will appear. And I'll read them and cherish them. We'll see the World War One Flying Ace, and Joe Cool, and the Head Beagle. We'll meet Spike and the rest of Snoopy's extended family from the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. We'll hear Peppermint Patty call Charlie Brown Chuck. We'll meet Sally and learn how selfish she could be, while still smiling. We'll see the opening of Lucy's psychiatry stand. We'll....

Well, I could go on for hours. It's a treasury waiting for us to enrich ourselves. I hope you all do so.

As for me, I'm going to remember that five years ago, Charlie Brown officially never kicked the football, and never would. And there was a purity in that I've never seen anyone else be brave enough to try.

February 07, 2005

Despite the fact that I prefer Foxtrot, you realize Jason's *never* going to actually grow up in that strip, don't you?


(From... I can't believe I'm typing this... Cathy. Click on the thumbnail for full sized nuptials.)

So, Cathy got married this weekend.

I don't like Cathy.

I don't like the strip. At all. I think it's not... well... funny. I think it peaked a long time ago. I think it's one of those strips that's found a dedicated slot on the Comics Page, so it's not going anywhere. I think there are a dozen strips I'd rather see get its slot, that do more as humor strips, as womens' strips, as any kind of strips. I'd kill to see Narbonic as a gag-a-day strip about empowered women in place of Cathy and her bathing suit and "acking."

So let's give it up for Motherfucking Cathy. She got married.

I'm serious.

Look, part of the reason we despise so many strips on the comics page is because not only aren't they funny, they're not trying anything new. Ever. I have a perverse love for Beetle Bailey, but I know Beetle is exactly the same person he was in 1969. I know Hagar is the same person he was in 1979. I know Andy Capp remains the same lovable wife beating drunk.

But the core premise of Cathy is "a single woman trying to cope with life's issues, including dating and a mother who is desperate to get her married."

Cathy got married. The entire premise of the strip has changed. In an corporate culture where change is feared and editors are a cowardly, superstitious lot, Cathy Guisewite has completely twisted the entire core of her comic strip.

That takes guts, kids. Especially when you consider she could simply have done another ten solid years of strips exactly like she did before. I'm not saying the new strips will be any funnier. But they're not going to be exactly the same. And she might well lose some fans who liked the old way better.

That deserves recognition. Jim Davis won't marry Jon and the Vet any time soon. Beetle Bailey won't get promoted or cashiered any time soon. (Or losing a leg or getting shipped to the Gulf, for that matter.) The kids in The Boondocks won't be growing up any time soon.

But Cathy got married.

Good show, Ms. Guisewite. Good show.

Now make it funny.

January 04, 2005

Sad news.

Will Eisner has passed on. He had quadruple bypass surgery, and while he was expected to come through that, there's a host of problems that can arise when you have that extensive a surgery. One of them was enough, though we don't have details yet.

Which is almost odd, in a morning already made surreal by his passing. Will Eisner was all about the details.

There's always been an understanding -- at least among the cognoscenti -- that comic strips and cartoon art was really illustration, and worthy of something more than dismissal as "the funny pages." But the same can't be said for comic books. It's not that they were always seen as "kid's stuff." They weren't. Back in the heydey of the publishing world, when Superman and Action Comics sold millions of copies, they sold them to adults just as often as children. But there was still a sense that comic books weren't serious. They weren't art.

But Will Eisner knew different. And we know different now, because of him.

Eisner's storytelling techniques were seminal. The Spirit was more than an action pulp -- it was a dynamic study in how to tell a story in sequence. And it was exciting, but also poignant, and brought the funny in good and appropriate measure. The term "sequential art" is credited to Eisner. The first graphic novel was Eisner's, and there was nary a spandex clad gladiator to be found in it.

Most of all, Eisner was a teacher. He did more than produce remarkable art. He used that art to inspire and education a new generation of artists. Face it, when Jules Feiffer, Wallace Wood and Scott McCloud all cite Eisner's profound influence, you know you're looking at the headwaters.

Eisner also believed in the sequential form, as a tool as well as an art form. In his seminal Comics and Sequential Art, he covered comics as entertainment and comics as instruction -- and for many years he illustrated training manuals. He believed history and science and basic how to's could all be explained in a clear and entertaining fashion through comics.

The comics industry will mourn, of course. They loved Will Eisner. In a land of Stan Lees and Jack Kirbys and Julie Schwartzes -- beloved giants of comic art -- it was Will Eisner whose name became the highest award in the comics. And cartoonists will mourn -- Eisner was no stranger to the newspaper pages, and one of his characters still appears in Will Eisner's JOHN LAW over on Modern Tales -- that's right, the webcartoonists get to count just a little piece of Eisner among them as well. And his spirit runs through any number of webcomics.

It's odd, almost. I wasn't personally a Spirit fan. I liked it fine, but it didn't change my life the way so many others did. But I loved Eisner's technique and form and belief in the academic discipline of comics, so I feel this death. And I know many cartoonists who feel bereft now. It's like the uncle who taught you everything you knew has passed on, and you feel like he had so much left to say.

Perhaps so. But one thing is clear. So long as artists lay out stories in panels, where one panel leads to the next with a sense of drama and story... so long as men in suits fight for women in dresses who are no damn good for them... and so long as bristol board accepts india ink from a brush, Will Eisner is going to be a part of the comics.

That's the real Spirit in the comics, and he belongs to us all now.

Thank you, sir.

December 09, 2004

Sacred hamburger: the role of our heroes in the decline of the newspaper comics page

I'm in a bad mood today. I have a bad headache, I've been fighting technology and politics and idiocy at work, the weather is miserable and icy (it's never fun to plunge to the ground), there are money issues and Christmas issues and technology issues and people calling me to troubleshoot things they bought themselves, didn't jury through our department, and now can't get to work because they're wrong and somehow this is my fault.

Bad. Mood. Everyone got that? Good.

So, it's the right mood to finally write about something that's been bugging me for as long as I've been following syndicated comic strips with some degree of understanding.

We all know the syndicates. King Features. Universal Press. The Washington Post Writer's Group. Et cetera ad nauseam. And we know the continual cry about them. "They're hidebound! They're too conservative! They restrict artistic freedom! They shaft the artists they're working for! They want to make art into nothing more than a commodity! They exalt the bland and restrain the daring! They won't fucking cancel Cathy and Garfield, and they aren't funny!"

All that is true, and all that is a lie.

I'm not a fan of the syndication system. I think it's a relic of a different era, and I think that era has ended. I think we're moving into a new era, not just in newspapers but in all media, where art can flourish and grow and extend without needing the gatekeepers we once did. Distribution is getting too simple. Print on demand is getting increasingly economic. Micropayments are getting closer to reality. The world is changing, and the syndicates are trying to change while holding onto their turf, and that's causing trouble.

But quite honestly, I don't blame the syndicates for what's happening to the newspaper page. I don't blame them at all. I think that, when you consider they're a business making business decisions, the situation we've found ourselves in was inevitable. And I know one of the major reasons it happened, and I know the people responsible.

And their names are Breathed, Watterson, and Larson.

Let's pause for a moment, and give people a chance to blink, reread that, and begin to get mad. While we do that, let's also puncture a myth. It's felt by many -- especially cartoonists who have been rejected by the syndicates -- that the funny pages have no room for controversy, for violence, for sex, or for honest humor in today's world. To those people, it's all Garfield, Beetle Bailey, The Wizard of Id, Peanuts reruns, Nancy and fucking Cathy. The damn Syndicates won't let any real humor or art or controversy on the page any more.

Bullshit.

There are strips with rampant gunplay and death, violence, terrorism, buckets of sex, racism, sexism, gays and lesbians, political and cultural commentary and bellylaughs, all to be found. There's Mister Boffo and The Fusco Brothers and Doonesbury and The Boondocks and Zippy the Pinhead and motherfucking Annie and Dick Tracy and Non Sequitur and Overboard and all the rest. The Syndicates aren't afraid of quality, or humor, or controversy. That's not what this is about. That's not what the problem is.

Comic strips, since at least the twenties, have been chock full of iconic creators. Segar. George Herriman. Chester Gould. Alex Raymond. Chic Young. Al Capp. Charles Schultz. Walt Kelly. Garry Trudeau. And many, many others. These were giants. Their strips were adored. Their presence or absence could make or break a newspaper as competing papers fought for the fickle public.

And the syndicates made a lot of money off of them. They merchandised and published collections and licensed the strips to Hell and back. There were Popeye lamps. There were Blondie movies (I used to watch them afternoons on WLBZ back in Maine -- they weren't bad, for 50's fluff). There were enough pieces of crap with Schmoos on them to fill a collector's basement to the door. And, while the cartoonists weren't particularly happy with the arrangement (I remember an Al Capp penned "Li'l Abner" where a cartoonist has a Syndicate head break his door down in the middle of the night, and demand immediate changes before the next morning, regardless of the public's desire or the cartoonist's desire. "Yessir," the cartoonist said, terrified. "After all, you own the strip. I just created it and have drawn it all my life."

But even that didn't capture the true heart of the problem -- that mythical syndicate head wanted changes in Fearless Fosdick because he didn't like the content, even though the public did. And while that's certainly not unknown in Comic Strip History, it's always been more about the comic strip as product that's driven syndicate decisions. It's not that controversy would offend the editors and publishers -- it's that the public might stop buying newspapers, or newspapers might stop running the strip. It was a business decision.

And honestly, it didn't lead to the collapse of the art form. Peanuts, Pogo, Li'l Abner, Doonesbury and all the rest were still great. There are ways they may even have been better -- unrestrained creativity is unedited creativity, and unedited creativity leads to self indulgence. We all know the pain of seeing some writer or artist we love become "too big to edit" or "too big to direct." It's not that they become bad -- it's that they could be better and they're not.

And so, we get to the eighties. And ultimately, we get to the latest three comic strip superstars. Berkeley Breathed, Bill Watterson, and Gary Larson. And they launched just slightly after a couple of other cartoonists you may have heard of: Jim Davis and Cathy Guisewite. Remember those names -- we will be coming back to them.

Bloom County and The Far Side first appeared in 1980. Calvin and Hobbes first appeared in 1985. It's pretty safe to say these three strips would be the most popular strips of their time. Certainly, they're the three strips mentioned again and again and again by current cartoonists and webcartoonists as seminal influences -- only Peanuts gets as many mentions by the current generation, with a few students of history to round things out.

That wasn't the only thing the three strips had in common, however. Not only were they of an age... they were written and drawn by a pack of troublemakers. Breathed and Watterson were champions of creator control for opposite reasons (Breathed enthusiastically played the merchandising game, and wanted to guide those efforts, while Watterson endlessly fought to keep Calvin and Hobbes from being merchandised in any way) but with similar goals -- both were vocal opponents of shrinking art space for comic strips, and both eventually were able to make demands in that area. Larson was less contentious but the most likely to be censored, according to the published anthologies. (Breathed had more than a few brushes with his editors in that regard, of course.) Larson was clearly most interested in drawing what he wanted to draw -- though he was happy enough to be merchandised. Both Larson and Watterson took long sabbaticals during their strips' runs. Breathed, on the other hand, reached a point where his disputes with his syndicate and with the grind of six strips and a sunday were too much and jumped from the Washington Post Writer's Group to Universal Press Syndicate, a mostly new cast of characters and Sundays only with Outland. (Of course, as WPWG's contracts with Breathed ran out, his characters sidled over from Bloom County to Outland along with.) Watterson demanded and got a concession for more room on Sundays -- half the page would be his, no compromises, if Calvin and Hobbes ran -- and began bringing Herrimanesque layouts and imagination to the page.

Now, let's look at the list of the ways our heroes caused trouble: they demanded rights over their creation and its merchandising. They demanded space and creative control. They demanded their own forms of artistic creativity and integrity. If you think I'm coming out against any of these things, you're nuts. They took a stand and they held firm, and they were popular enough that they got their own way. Sure, the syndicates might not have made all the money they wanted (especially from Calvin and Hobbes), but they were still making more money from these properties than from their others, and they wanted that to continue.

But it didn't continue, did it?

Let's stop and consider the giant comic strips. Peanuts went on decades. As did L'il Abner. Annie and Dick Tracy and Popeye have been in newspapers since the 20's through the 40's. And even second tier strips (comparatively) like Blondie and Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois and Nancy and all the rest bring in money over a very, very long term -- owned by the syndicates, with new people coming it to replace retirees, they represent investments with tremendous return. The merchandising might not be the bonanza Bloom County or the Far Side represented, but it's there and bringing in money. In short, these strips are all good for business, and more to the point they're good for business over a very, very long time.

Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, on the other hand, were excellent for business... but honestly didn't last that long. Especially when one remembers the sabbaticals (where reruns took place -- and Larson's syndicate actually took criticism because they charged the same price for the reruns of the Far Side as they did for new strips) and the jumping from one syndicate to another. By the mid-nineties, they'd all ended. The shift from Bloom County to Outland had slowed the Breathed property merchandising up a lot, so there wasn't much left to continue. The Far Side kept merchandising for a long time, though when they put out their Last Ever Desk Calendar a couple of years back, I remember seeing it and thinking "they're still making those?" instead of being sad. And of course, Calvin and Hobbes doesn't bring in any kind of money except for print collections, and hasn't since the last, memorable strip.

Now, if our three troublemakers -- pushing boundaries, advocating for creative and artistic rights, demanding space and time to recharge, creatively -- had stuck the course... some real positive things could have happened. They could have demanded change across the board, not just for themselves but for all creators. They could have used their clout with the papers for the art form as a whole. Or, at the very least, they could have continued to advocate and draw in readers and inspire new generations of artist. But they didn't. Bloom County went nine years, Outland went five more. Calvin and Hobbes went ten years if we ignore the sabbaticals. The Far Side went the longest at sixteen. Which frankly is nothing compared to most of the strips on the comics page. The old school ethic was if your strip remained popular, you kept doing it. And for that matter, when you retired or died, someone else picked it up for you. (Even Peanuts, which ended when Schultz retired -- though as it worked out he died the day of the last strip's publication -- was a situation where the syndicate announced their decision to run reruns after Schultz's death instead of having someone else pick it up. And if you look at their web site, the copyright notice isn't for Schultz's estate. Instead, it's: PEANUTS 2004, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)

So. You have three very very popular but troublesome creators, who captured the public's imagination... but made a lot of demands, and then left comparatively quickly.

Now, let's look at Garfield and Cathy.

Garfield is inoffensive. It's designed to be. Jim Davis didn't develop it out of a sense of art or humor... he developed it as a marketing plan, finding an underrepresented pet -- cats -- on the comics page and developing a strip that would be highly accessible, unchallenging, and appealing to a broad demographic. Which is more or less how he presented it to United Features Syndicate in 1978, and they agreed. He managed to secure an early deal with the syndicate over merchandising, which was very friendly to both Davis (and his "Paws, Inc.") and United Features. And he designed it, very calculatingly, to have broad appeal -- no topical humor, no country or regional based humor, a simple, clean art style, and simple, easily grasped characters. And they have never strayed from this. Garfield is lazy and likes to eat. Jon is unlucky in love and is a dork. Odie drools and is stupid. Nermal is cute and annoying. Also, lasagna.

They have sold millions of copies of dozens of different books -- getting on the New York Times best sellers list several times. They have sold posters and signs and car suction cup things. They got a (pretty damn good) cartoon series and a (no idea if good or bad) movie made. Hell, when I walk down the hall past one of the Foreign Language classrooms, there's a Garfield on the door with his hands extended wide and "I love you thiiiiis much" written under it in Spanish. In fact, Bloom County's Bill the Cat was wholly created to be a parody of Garfield's merchandising and commercial intent. That Bill went on to make Breathed and his syndicate buttloads of merchandising dollars has been lost on no one.

No one who has a webcomic claims to have been inspired by Garfield. But we've all read it. People who've never heard of the Boondocks or even For Better or For Worse know Garfield. And Garfield continues to rake in oodles of cash. It's been successful enough that Davis started a second strip -- U.S. Acres -- and successfully merchandised it, though it wasn't as universal and faded out. And later, he was contracted to do Mister Potatohead for the good people at Hasbro.

Which underscores just what kind of operation Garfield is. It fits perfectly in the syndicate model, because drawn or not, funny or not, it's a commodity. It's content, and it never causes controversy and Davis never demands more space or time off (in fact, he doesn't draw the strip any more). It's a brand. And it sells. Well. And it's not going anywhere.

Move over to Cathy. Who's actually the longest running strip of the five we're profiling here -- it started in 1976. Cathy isn't the marketing bonanza that Garfield is but it's solid in that arena (and has an Emmy award winning cartoon in its past). Now, Cathy Guisewite isn't trying to create a marketing machine, the way Jim Davis was. She truly wanted to be a cartoonist, to draw her semiautobiographical comic strip about the overweight insecure woman and her travails.

(Note to the people who followed the snarks over the last few days. I mentioned wanting to see a female protagonist who wasn't a size six? Hi, this is Cathy. Have you met her? She's insecure about being seen in a bathing suit. No, she's not who I had in mind either when I said that, but if we ignore her, we're doing a disservice to ourselves, to the art form and to our argument.)

Most of all... Cathy has been consistent. Guisewite doesn't cause controversy. She doesn't make waves. She doesn't cause outrage. She just produces, day in and day out. And she's recognizable, instantly. She's a brand. And papers run her happily. She's safe, she's a known quantity, and there's a sense that if they dropped her, there would be letters. They're right, too. I don't know who'd write them, but there would be letters.

Now, there's something that needs to be said here. Jim Davis is, from all reports, a very nice man. Well spoken, cheerful, unashamed, and downright pleasant. And Cathy Guisewite loves cartooning. It's her life. I saw her once on the Tonight Show -- she was clearly nervous, but cheerful... and everything she was asked she related back to the comic strip. She's not ashamed of it. She doesn't think it's mediocre. She's proud of Cathy. She's proud of what she's managed to do as a female cartoonist. She's proud of the inroads she's made and her place in cartoonist history. And who the fuck are we to say she shouldn't be.

But in terms of the art form... almost all webcartoonists, cartoonists and creators of our generation look back to the three rebels -- Larson, Watterson and Breathed -- and want to be like them. They want to take up their causes. They want to make a difference and emancipate the comics page.

But look at this from the syndicates and their point of view. What do you want in your syndicate? The three monster huge strips, two of which had merchandising bonanzas, but with cantankerous creators who punched out after ten or fifteen years... or the solid, dependable strips that don't cause trouble and that keep moving along 25-30 years later, bringing in fees and merchandising dollars all the while?

If you look at the 90's instead of the 80's, there's really only one cartoonist who hit that same "iconic" status as Breathed, Watterson and Larson: Scott Adams. And let's be blunt -- Dilbert owes a Hell of a lot to Garfield. It found a receptive niche -- the disgruntled workplace -- and it leveraged and merchandised the Hell out of that niche. It's settled in for the long haul. It gathers strips from its readers (which is a convenient way to avoid needing those sabbaticals to recharge, isn't it?) and it's allowed the almost surreal, whimsical and anarchic humor of its early days -- Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light; Bob the Dinosaur -- to be wholly replaced with "gosh, managers are stupid boobs, aren't they? Boy, aren't human resources directors evil?" jokes.

Go to the Dilbert website. Check out the bottom: Dilbert 2004, United Feature Syndicate, Inc. Look familiar?

One of the few people to really challenge the Syndicates from within since the Rebel Heroes left was Frank Cho. And he ultimately left, too constrained by editors and structures. For the most part, whether some of the strips are wild and controversial or not, the comics page is now made up of sound, long term investments. Investments the syndicates are pretty sure will be here thirty years from now. And strips that have already been here for thirty years. Strips where the creators don't cause too much trouble -- they might fight for a plotline, or to reach their own niche. The Boondocks isn't out there to pander, and For Better and For Worse wasn't afraid to out a long standing character as gay or kill the family dog. But Johnston and McGruder aren't exactly demanding half a sunday page to themselves, are they?

No, the Syndicates have learned their lesson. When Scott Kurtz was approached by a syndicate, he wanted to retain rights -- merchandising, online distribution, the comic book deal with Image -- but the syndicate said "no." This was a proven quantity that would work on the funny pages. The syndicate knew it -- this was low risk stuff for them. But they learned their lesson: either they wanted the whole enchilada, or they'd go somewhere else for Mexican. They learned that from Larson, Watterson and Breathed.

So yeah. I give full respect to Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County. Hell, I fucking revere those strips. I love what they managed to do. I love the artistry of them. I love the humor of them. I think they're signs of brilliance. And I think we're reaping the artistic benefit of their inspiration today. I really do.

But when you look at the newspaper page, and feel like something's missing... remember those fantastic strips that blew into town, made a lot of demands, caused a lot of trouble, and then blew back out of town. This is part of their legacy too. And the sooner we all recognize that, the better our efforts to retake newspaper comics from the safe and marketable will be.

I told you I was in a bad mood.

December 01, 2004

A brief IM log about Annie.

Eric Burns 12:46: I'm in and out today. (Seminar. Pray for me.) How you?

Pip 12:46: Good, good. Took to reading some more of Annie. Watching Daddy Warbucks toss around the Satanist is just... weird. Daddy Warbucks, Action Hero. Duuuude.

Eric Burns 12:47: Hey -- he's got the power of the American Capitalistic System in those guns, pal!

November 14, 2004

Winning the race

My eyes ache and my eyelids are too heavy. My stomach is about like I thought it would be. I'd still be asleep, but my cat decided she wanted to be amused, and crawled on me until I made those noises she finds so funny. So I checked the news. No promises how long I'll stay awake, but regardless, I learned something that deserves acknowledgement. Namely, Harry Lampert, who with Gardner Fox created the Golden Age Flash, has died.

I always liked the golden age versions of super heroes. Generally, I liked them better than I liked the modern age heroes. I'm a huge Green Lantern fan, but when I was eight years old I read a reprint of the Golden Age Green Lantern, and no matter how much I got into Hal Jordan, he always seemed like a leotard wearing fancy lad next to the two fisted Alan Scott. One thing I liked was the abandon of the heroes. Barry Allen became the Flash only after lightning managed to twist its way into the room he was standing on the opposite side of the window of, so it could conveniently avoid all the metal in the walls or on the roof of police headquarters (hello? Radio tower on the roof?) to hit the stockpiles of chemicals and bathe him in its transforming chemical goodness. Jay Garrick? Fell asleep while breathing "hard water fumes." And when he woke up, he could play tennis by himself and he thought wearing a pie pan with wings on his head made for a good fashion statement.

I can get behind that. The visual look of the Jay Garrick Flash was always cool -- just this guy in a cobbled together costume who took joy in running. And from all reports that described Harry Lampert too. This is a man who, in his sixties, became a successful writer with a series of books on playing Bridge. In fact, his book The Fun Way to Serious Bridge is described by the Houston Chronicle as "the bible of the game." And that might have been a mantra for the man -- he made serious work fun, and he took fun things seriously.

Lampert was an artist from sixteen years old on. He was a part of arguably the most significant cross-media transition in sequential art, working on and inking Fleischer Studios cartoons. He worked on Popeye and Betty Boop for them. If you don't think that was big, bear in mind most kids today don't even know Popeye was a comic strip before it became a cartoon, and a Hell of a lot more kids watch the Justice League cartoon than read the Justice League comic book.

After his time in comic books, which sadly (for us) was short, he went on to draw cartoons for Time Magazine, Esquire, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post and others. He taught illustration at the New York School of the Visual Arts. And he enjoyed life. And, in the 90's, decades after he created one of the most enduring characters of the Golden Age of Comics, he learned an entire subculture prized his work. He went to the San Diego Comic Con for the first time in his seventies, and discovered people would line up for his autograph, would pay good money for a sketch, and were buying first editions of his comics for thousands of dollars. He was amused when he told The Washington Post that he couldn't afford to buy one of his own first editions -- they cost too much money.

I think it's nice that he got to be a comics rock star at the twilight of his life. I think it's nice that a DC Comics representative noticed him at San Diego, got his social security number, and sent him back royalties for his work, too. I think it's nice he got to know just how many people were touched by something he created.

Sometimes, the best race you can win is the one you didn't even know you had run.

Right, I'm going to have a cup of tea, some Tums, lie down and die. Enjoy, kids.

October 19, 2004

I have a stuffed "Yuppie Opus" from this time period at home. He has sneakers and a power tie. I bet its worth a lot on eBay at this point. You can't have him.


(From Bloom County. Click on the thumbnail for full sized offscreen hair! (Subscription very required))

There were watershed moments in Bloom County, and every so often they come up as My Comics Page slowly fills out their archives of the strip. Today, we've seen one of the big ones -- the (offscreen) introduction of Lola Granola, a woman who ended up a major supporting character and Opus's love interest for a very long time.

The best part of the Lola years is Breathed set up a certain expectation in the beginning -- the first thing we hear about is Lola's hairy legs. And we don't see her for quite some time. If you haven't read the sequence, you now have a mental image of Lola. If you have read the sequence, you know how well that image does or doesn't match up with Lola herself. This all goes back to 1986, and Breathed was at his absolute storytelling peak, here. Perhaps it lacked the edge of the first few years (much less the Academia Waltz), but it also didn't fall into the esoteric banality that marked the late Bloom County and Outland years. (As for Opus... no clue. I've seen it once. Looked like Outland to me, only with less effort put into it. But I haven't seen it enough to have a real opinion.) Right now, Breathed was hitting on all cylinders, the strips were funny and the story made sense and remained compelling.

We're very close to the Bassalope years, too, and that's a fine, fine thing.

October 16, 2004

And just like that, a giant, oversized, lazy boy becomes a giant, oversized, lazy man.


(From Li'l Abner. Click on the thumbnail for full sized delayed puberty!)

1952 was a historic year for Li'l Abner. Not only was this the year that Daisy Mae finally got Li'l Abner to marry her (an 18 year quest), but, as you see in the above strip, it was the year Daisy Mae got Li'l Abner to kiss her -- and have him discover that he likes the kissing, as he said. And just three months after the wedding, too! As Mammy Yokum said a couple of days before, the Yokums are widely noted as passionate lovers, and clearly this is all that was needed, as it would be roughly nine months later that Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae's son Honest Abe Yokum would be born.

Comics.com has this milestone event in their reprints today. Check it out! And note the acknowledgment that while Abner and Daisy Mae would not be running in the Sadie Hawkins Day race that year, it would indeed be held. Some traditions are eternal.

September 12, 2004

Dis is whut we get today? Chee!


(From Superosity! Click on dis tumnale for full sized hully gee!)

Comics history time, kids. Richard Felton ("R.F.") Outcault created newspaper comics, for all intents and purposes, with Hogan's Alley, featuring the Yellow Kid, first published in Truth Magazine in 1894, then making the jump to Joseph Pulitzer'sThe New York World newspaper (and then other papers) in 1895. He was popular, so William Randolph Hearst lured Outcault away with a big salary and put newspaper cartoons on the map. Cartoons quickly became seen as important commodities for newspapers -- especially the "Yellow Newspapers" known for more sensational news as compared with the more staid, non-tabloid papers. Pulitzer and Hearst both published Yellow Kids comics for a while, and both merchandised the character, proving the market for such things. Consider the impact that had on cartooning through the new century, leading up to today. Outcault eventually returned to Pulitzer, by the way, and created Buster Brown for him.

Clearly, when Chris, Bobby and Boardy traveled back to 1895 to celebrate the first Labor Day, Richard Outcault's lesser known brother Ralphie met them and had his future changed, causing him not to die in a pile of pig manure and to take his brother's role as the grandfather of newspaper cartoons.

Which means Superosity was the very first Comic Strip! And you thought Chris Crosby wouldn't ever amount to anything. Sadly, this also means that Chris, Bobby and "Irony" are all in the public domain. But naturally, Keenspot will exercise its titanic merchandising muscles and force changes in Copyright Law to protect their huge profit potent--

Oh, who am I kidding. No one would be that nuts about comic strip characters.

September 04, 2004

Don't you fucking tell me there are no magic words. I know better.


(Found on Narbonic.com in support of Modern Tales's comic Narbonic. Click on the thumbnail for full sized prenarbonic action!)

So, having consumed Narbonic's archives over the past couple of days, I'm now ravenous for more. And that, by the way, is what a truly great webcomic does. It infects your brain with its premise, with its attitude, with its expectations and whips you up into a froth, so that you want more, damn it, now!

This does not, by the way, explain why some people are total assholes when it comes to updates, especially from hobbyist cartoonists. No, that's not because those people are so desperate for the next strip they lose all rhyme or reason. That's because those people are total assholes. Entirely different reaction, really.

So I went looking for more stuff. And saw on Garrity's web site that she had some old strips from her college days and the like. All very nice and neat, and I looked through them -- including the above strip, which was called "North of Space."

And there I saw it. The magic word.

Cushlamocree.

Doesn't mean anything to you? Then your world is a much sadder place than mine.

Back in the forties, a man named Crockett Johnson wrote and drew a comic strip called Barnaby. This was a strip about a young boy named, appropriately enough, Barnaby -- who wished one day to have a Fairy Godmother. Well, the fates gave him a Fairy Godfather instead -- Mr. O'Malley, a small, portly pixie with a pork-pie hat and a "fine Havana wand" that looked a whole lot like a cigar. And so began a series of absolutely whimsical, absolutely magical, savagely sophisticated and satirical comic strips.

They were absolutely wonderful. When satirizing the campaign of Thomas Dewey for President, they revealed three ghosts coordinating his campaign strategy -- all of whom were working to turn back time, because they didn't like the modern world. One of them -- Colonel Wurst (a conflation of the names of the owner of the Chicago Tribune and William Randolph Hearst -- two rabid anti-Roosevelt voices) -- published news in the papers that was old, each day pushing the news back another day in time. In the end, they gave up the campaign after Wurst published news from the day before Black Monday. Since they had decided they had moved back before the Great Depression, they were all rich again, so they didn't care about politics any more. The relationship of the Pixies, the kids who saw and believed in them and the parents who didn't (and who called them Pixeys -- a slight difference that made all the difference) is echoed in everything from Calvin and Hobbes to Mr. Snuffleupagus.

Duke Ellington once wrote to the newspaper that published Barnaby to state, for the record, that he believed in Mr. O'Mallery, no matter what Barnaby's parents thought. And Dorothy Parker wrote a review that she described as a valentine and a mash note to Johnson. This is the depth of impact Barnaby had on popular culture.

Johnson also wrote the seminal children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon -- a book entirely about unleashing one's imagination through art. It was beautiful and wonderful. But I first came to know Johnson through Barnaby. One of the greatest runs of the strip -- the Hot Coffee Ring -- was in that Smithsonian Cartoon Art collection I mentioned a while back.

Mr. O'Malley had an all purpose expression -- somewhere between an exclamation and a swear -- that he used all the time. "Cushlamocree."

When Garrity used Cushlamocree in her strip, she instantly brought all of the above back to me... back to my own childhood. Back to a lot of people's childhoods.

Magic.

I owe her a beer if I ever meet her.