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Category: Cartoons

Dead and Deader
I drew a dead guy in a cartoon recently, in my 4/2/15 Deep Cover, and the experience has stuck with me. I’m not feeling remorse, exactly. His death was necessary to the creation of my cartoon; he had to die so that I could get my point across. What I am experiencing is more like a sense of loss at his passing, as if I had failed him somehow.

I’m not certain what put me in this mood, but I did see some paintings around the same time by a young artist named Sarah Honan. Using photographs from morgues all over the country, she has painted the likenesses of women who had died without a next-of-kin, without a history, and without a name… Jane Does, in other words. They are collected in Blink., her showing of the paintings. The pictures are grim and haunting.

My dead guy was not a real person like those Jane Does, but like them, he neither had a story nor anyone to remember him. He was composed only of a few sketchy lines, and he was mostly obscured by other elements in the drawing. I’ll bet that most people who saw the cartoon didn’t even notice him lying there. He is dead, though, just like the women. In a way, his fate is even lonelier than theirs. Not only is he dead, he has never lived at all. You don’t get much deader than that.

I do feel some responsibility for the dead guy. I created him, just as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster. I have to answer for what he does and what happens to him. I haven’t drawn a lot of dead people over the years (unless you count graveyards). I can’t remember them all, but most were probably bit players like this guy. None of them had a history, either, and no future except as corpses in a cartoon. Even so, I bear a responsibility for them, too.

I am not certain what my duties are to my dead guy. I sentenced him to death and executed him; perhaps I could give him a backstory… a life to go with his death. So here goes: since the cartoon is set in the Middle East, I say that he was a young Muslim caught up in the cycle of violence that seems to sweep endlessly through that region. He was probably killed by other young Muslims.

The women in Sarah Honan’s Blink. all seem to have died violent or ignominious deaths. “I thought of all of the victims of sexual and physical abuse, of women deemed disposable by society, ” she says. “I realised how much they had to say about women all over the world.” Honan wanted to give those women a voice and a legacy.

My dead guy was a willing participant in the violence that killed him, but he is no less a victim than those Jane Does. His imaginary death makes me think of all the real young men deemed disposable by society, as are all casualties of war. In my cartoon, he is a character playing one of those young men.

I feel guilty in having used him so roughly. In doing so, I’ve treated my own character as disposable, and that seems wrong — as if I were taking the real deaths in the Middle East lightly. I should have used more care in drawing him, perhaps, but I can’t go back and change it now. I guess I’ll just have to do better. The next time I draw a dead guy (and there will be more of them — life is cheap in the comics), I promise to give him the artistic respect he is due. That ought to be my responsibility as a cartoonist in any case, and he deserves better as a stand-in for all those real John Does.
Save the Fool
I get a little nervous when they start murdering cartoonists. I’d feel that way even if I weren’t a cartoonist, but it’s reassuring that so many other people seem to feel that there is something especially wrong with the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Cartoonists, I think, enjoy a special reputation, even among their fellow satirists. They are the modern incarnation of the Fool, or close to it. Like that archetype, they are often seen as innocents and as truth-tellers. In fact, the reliability (and forgivability) of their truthfulness is rooted in that innocence.

In his purest form, the Fool acts as a mirror to the world around him. He blurts out what he sees in the way that madmen do — without regard to manners or custom. He simply reflects the unvarnished, often painful truth right there in front of us. Sometimes that truth is so obvious that the rest of us miss it. It catches us by surprise, and it makes us laugh.

The Fool is not reasoned, nor earnest, nor moral, but he does have an eye for absurdity and a nose for bullshit. He adds no analysis of his own; that is left to those who are foolish enough to call themselves wise.

The reaction to the French terrorists has become a little more diffuse since the Charlie Hebdo story. Since then, a kosher market and some unlucky hostages have been added to the list of bloody outrages in France. The sharpest sting for me, though, remains the murder of the cartoonists. I take it personally. It forces me to examine my own efforts as a satirist.

My first reaction was something like guilt. Those cartoonists were brave; I am a coward. I should be making drawings that push the edge and challenge the darkest, most dangerous forces in this world. Cartoonists in much more threatening surroundings than mine do it all the time, so why can’t I? I should be doing work, in other words, that makes people want to kill me.

I have since backed off that position. I am a coward, after all. Instead, I’ve decided to try and be a better Fool. Of the host of cartoons drawn in sympathy with Charlie Hebdo, my favorites have been the least angry. R. Crumb also labeled himself a coward, but he did draw “the hairy ass of Mohamid” (as only Crumb could), noting it belonged to his friend Mohamid Bakhsh of L.A. And I especially liked Charlie Hebdo’s first cover after the shooting: a head shot of Mohammed shedding a tear and holding a sign reading “Je Suis Charlie.” Innocent, simple, human, real. Defiant, yet sympathetic to non-radical Muslims (if not their faith). The epitome of a Fool.

I’m not Charlie, but I wish I were.
Celebritoons
If you’re like me, you prefer to get your opinions on the important issues of the day from celebrities. I like to think, however, that I am pretty selective about which famous folk I look to for leadership.

If Daffy Duck were alive today, for instance, I would certainly be paying attention to his views on public policy. He is, after all, my favorite animated cartoon character of all time. At the very least, I’d follow him on Twitter and hang on his every raspberried lisp.

By contrast, I don’t think I’d give much weight to Woody Woodpecker’s tweets. I never liked his laugh, and that was pretty much the whole thing with him. Donald Duck had a funny voice, but Donald’s issues with anger are well documented, and I don’t want a political philosophy founded on rage.

Bugs Bunny, for all his savvy wackiness, is a little too ironic to be trusted as a source of political wisdom. Goofy, of course, is plenty sincere, but his level of sophistication would be more at home in the Tea Party… and I cannot go there. Nor is Foghorn Leghorn on my go-to list. His arrogant, blowhard style follows the traditional Republican model. He’s a rooster’s rooster, for sure — exactly the kind of bonehead who took us into Iraq.

Mickey Mouse seems to be a decent sort, but I’m not interested in hearing his take on income inequality. He (along with other nice-guy heroes like Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Mighty Mouse, and Crusader Rabbit) is simply too boring. I like to see some passion in my thought leaders. Plus, they’re all teetotalers. I can’t imagine having a beer with any of them.

None of the sprawling constellation of Hanna Barbera characters is my list, either. Not only are Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, and their made-for-TV ilk too poorly animated to be taken seriously, they just aren’t funny. Worse yet, they lack the gravitas and capacity for self-reflection we’ve come to expect from good cartoons.

The Simpsons and Family Guy characters are certainly amusing, but they aren’t really cartoon characters at all. Instead, they are illustrations cast in human roles. Same with Popeye, Betty Boop, or Farmer Alfalfa; if I want insight from a human celebrity (and I don’t), I’d prefer to hear it from a living, three-dimensional version, thank you.

No, Daffy is my guy. A bit of a drama queen, but what do you expect from a Hollywood superstar? He’s got a cranky libertarian side, too, but I’m okay with that. Besides, you can’t deny the passion — even if it’s phony. And he’d be great to have a drink with. A drink or two, perhaps. Maybe go bar-hopping. Who knows? We might even go on a ten-day bender and wake up in the hold of Marvin the Martian’s spaceship bound for Planet X.

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind hearing Marvin’s position on alternative energy sources. He seems like a pretty sharp dude.
Subconscious Everlasting, Amen
I recently went past the halfway point with Subconscious Comics. I’ve been posting it on this site for almost ten years now, starting with the last episode I cranked out in 2000 and moving backward through time toward the very first one I drew. I’m just getting into 1989 now, and some time in 2022 I expect to be posting that first strip from way back in 1981.

That, as I so often find myself saying these days, was a long time ago.

I promise I’m not going to launch into a reverie about what a long, strange trip it’s been; I will leave that to the team of biographers I have placed on retainer. I will, however, take note of one truth I have learned about art. While life and history seem to bring change with every breath, art does not. Once it is created, it freezes a moment and holds it up for that ever-morphing world to ponder, theoretically forever.

Yes, theoretically. What I have been wondering as I post these old cartoons is whether anyone will ever look at my frozen moments after I am gone.

Here’s a story: Somewhere in France there is an undiscovered limestone cave filled with the most gorgeous, moving paintings ever created, but they are not art. Or rather, they are no longer art. To the creativity-crazed caveman who secretly made them fifteen thousand years ago, they were definitely art. They gave shape and meaning to his life. Then, one day, he got cheeky with the wrong mastodon and got duly stomped before he ever got a chance to show his art to anyone else. That day, his masterwork ceased to exist as a work of art.

I’m saying that art is only art if someone is creating it, looking at it, or thinking about it. A hundred years from now, my comics may still reside in some dusty anteroom of the internet, but if no one sees them, if no one is affected by them, then they will no longer exist as art. And that is probably what will happen with Subconscious Comics. After I die, give it a generation to rattle around in the minds of people who read it fresh. After they die — poof! — it will no longer exist.

I tried to stay away from the topical with Subconscious Comics because I wanted to do something distinct from my political cartoons, something that would not depend on a knowledge of history to have meaning — art, in other words, that could stand up to time. They’re only cartoons, I know, but I wanted those frozen moments to last. I’ve known all long that my little dream of immortality had no chance. I have accepted that my frozen bits will probably not survive once I’m not there to pay for the refrigeration.

Or perhaps they will survive. It could happen. They (or maybe just one really good one) might outlast the Great Pyramid of Giza or the temple at Gobekli Tepe or the caves at Lascaux. Or not. Either way, I’m okay with it. After all, what’s the point in being immortal if you’re not going to be around to enjoy it?
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon