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Category: Cartoons

The Cartooning of Personal Destruction
There are some public figures I don’t like. And by “don’t like,” I mean I hate their guts. The way they smile, the way they talk, the way they part their hair… I feel the revulsion knotting up my viscera just thinking about it.

This is the kind of attitude, we all know, that can lead to purely ad hominem attacks —cartoons that have no other purpose than personal vilification. And I’m not just talking about character assassination by way of ugly metaphor; I’m talking about caricature, too. When I draw Newt Gingrich, I try to make him as loathsome and vile as the art of cartooning will permit.

These feelings might be grounded, I admit, in the hate object’s politics, or in their willful ignorance, or in their propensity to say they know things that they know they don’t know (otherwise known as lying). But I will not lie. Though I draw cartoons that are attacks on what these people do, the drawings are often designed to dehumanize them. I have made judgments about their character as human beings, and I have let those judgments color my satire (in bile yellow, mostly, with envy green highlights).

In my defense, let me say that I am not proud of myself for feeling this way. In fact, I hate myself for hating. It’s wrong, it’s counter-productive, and it’s certainly not life affirming. Normally, I’m for affirming the hell out of life, making the world a better place, and all that kind of high-minded crap. I’m dead set against hatred, particularly in others. Let the record reflect that I think hate is bad.

Not only is all this negativity corroding my aura, it’s diluting the credibility of my satire. The billions of readers who look to me for perspective in making their most important civic decisions are being denied a truly detached take on the world. How does it help them to know that I hate the Koch brothers (David slightly more than Charles, in case you’re wondering)? Why should they care if I claim that Ted Cruz is not qualified to be president because he was born in Transylvania? And let’s face it: no matter how personally detestable Mitch McConnell is, an attack on his character is as much about me as it about his sorry, obstructive ass.

See? The hatred is creeping in even in the middle of this prayer for forgiveness. But please believe me; I am working on my feelings — trying to change and become a better cartoonist, if not a better person. Perhaps this confession will help. I’m hoping that laying my soul bare might exorcise this demon of personal animus and allow me to produce satire that actually makes a difference.

After all, aren’t public figures human beings, just like you and me? Aren’t we just as apt as John Edwards to have a child out of wedlock while our champ of a mate is dying of cancer — all while we’re running for president? Of course we would; we’re only human.

So I’m sorry, okay? I promise to do better. I vow never to take part in the cartooning of personal destruction again. I only wish I could take back all those vicious ad hominem attacks I’ve made over the years.

But not the Newt stuff; I hate that son of a bitch.
Peanuts
Mark Tatulli has guts. He draws the comic strip Lio, which is among the first I turn to on the daily comics page. One reason I like him is that he pushes the envelope: plays with the space he is granted in unusual ways, ventures to the dark side for a lot of his humor, is not afraid to be utterly absurd, and goes wordless a lot of the time. He’s even dared to give the title character (a young boy) a father but no mother. Mark breaks the rules and tries to expand the limits of one of the most staid and predictable of all cartoon genres. That takes guts.

It now appears that his moxie has grown even larger. Recently, he’s had the cojones to take on perhaps the most hallowed icon of daily cartoons: Peanuts. He doesn’t diss Charles Schultz or the strip itself. He simply points out, in a darkly humorous way, that the strip is still running even though a new episode hasn’t been published since February 13, 2000. In case you don’t know, that’s because Schultz died that same week.

I give Charles Schultz and whoever makes the decisions for his estate full credit for not selling the right to continue producing the strip to someone else. Some strips are so intertwined with the personality and worldview of their creators that the two have to go out together. And I certainly don’t blame Schultz’s kin for making money off the rerunning of old strips. But it does seem like a waste.

Peanuts used to be one of the strips I went to first when the paper arrived. Not anymore, though; I bypass it now in favor of the new (and perhaps lesser) work of living cartoonists. If I want to read Peanuts, I can go buy a collection. When Garry Trudeau takes a holiday from drawing Doonesbury and runs old strips instead, I don’t read those either.

If Bill Watterson allowed a similar republication of Calvin and Hobbes episodes, I might be tempted to read them again. It was, to my taste, the best daily strip ever drawn. Even in that case, though, I can imagine feeling a little odd doing it. I’ve already read all those cartoons; why not give somebody else a chance? They probably wouldn’t measure up, but I’d still prefer to have the chance to decide for myself. What if the next Calvin or Peanuts is trying to work its way into print and just can’t make it because an old, dead comic strip is in the way?

I’m not talking about me, by the way. I’ve given up on trying to break into that market, but I know there are talented cartoonists out there with something new and unique to offer. We should be given the chance to see their work in print — while we’re all waiting to see the newspaper business evaporate entirely.

I don’t know if Mark Tatulli feels the way I do. He’s probably just making jokes about the other cartoons that appear on the page with his. He parodies strips other than Peanuts, so maybe that’s all it is. Even so, he gets extra points for making fun of a dead comic strip and all its dead characters just because they’re dead.

I guess we’d be depriving him of ripe material by burying Peanuts once and for all. That would be a shame. But I could wish for just a bit more guts from Mark. Perhaps then he would go the extra mile and turn the Peanuts characters into zombies. If he did, I could forgive the presence of that dear, departed strip in my daily newspaper. A brain-eating Charlie Brown might be just the thing to start my day.
Drawing a Crowd
I’ve never met another cartoonist who didn’t cite Mad Magazine as an early influence. The drawing was great, and the goofy, irreverent humor hit the teenage sweet spot.

My favorite was Wally Wood. The drawings were executed in a fluid, voluptuous style, but at the same time were filled with flawless detail. The deliciously curved lines were the result of expert brushwork, and their perfection, I know now, was the product of drawing, drawing, drawing.

I’ll confess that his drawings of women were, for a long time, my main source of information about female anatomy, bending it slightly toward the fantastical. More fulfilling for me, though, were the endless, lovingly rendered backgrounds he drew — especially the crowds. Often, dozens of characters were depicted, always with amusing expressions, and never without the full complement of facial features. Each was given a unique wardrobe and posture, and all seemed to be possessed of distinct, individual personalities.

As a boy, I was transfixed by these drawings. I am still awestruck as an adult. This guy must have drawn all day, churning out beautifully drawn panels from dawn till dusk. As a cartoonist, the thought of that humbles me. I draw, but I don’t draw that much.

The rest of the Mad crew — Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker and the rest — all featured similar detail in their crowds. Drucker did it using multiple caricatures on each of his sea of faces, and they all seemed right on and fully alive. I suspect that even if I drew in my every waking hour, I could never attain that level of mastery. Since I’ve got other things to do, we’ll never know. Or is it just laziness?

When my students ask me how to draw a crowd, I usually reply with a description of the sketchiest illustration possible: portray a few faces and bodies in the front row, just to establish the theme, then draw those behind them with simpler and simpler shapes as their distance from the front increases. In the deepest part of the crowd, faces are reduced to mere ovals, without even a mark to indicate eyes or other features. Bodies become mere suggestions of shape — enough to continue, in the mind of the beholder, the theme established by the front row.

If a student has an inclination to draw every face and form, I encourage him to do it, but most are simply looking for the effect of a crowd, not the intricate reality. For one thing, all that drawing takes time, and for a daily cartoonist on a deadline, time is a luxury. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

For an editorial cartoonist, it might also be argued that the inclusion of all those fully inked characters might be a distraction from the point of the cartoon. The inclusion of one of Wally Wood’s curvaceous babes would certainly have that effect — beautifully drawn and entertaining in its own right, but doing nothing to advance the idea behind the drawing. It could, I think, undermine the effectiveness of the satire and lessen its impact.

Still, it can be fun investing those bit players with stories of their own. When I do it, I like being forced to address each one individually. Are they angry, excited, nervous, frightened, or filled with joy? Who are they? What are their lives like? Do they have a future? Those ovals I usually put in the back row of my crowds don’t have one, that’s for sure. No one cares about them, not even me.

Wally Wood’s crowd characters, which he so clearly enjoyed creating, will live on. They will populate the cartoon afterlife by the thousands, forever captured in the signature pose they held only that one time. One instant of life rewarded with comic immortality. Mine, on the other hand, are consigned to cartoon limbo, floating in a dimensionless void between character and mere shapes.

Well, I’m not Wally Wood, and he’s not me. I’ll leave some characters in the cartoon afterlife, but not nearly as many as he did. Right now, though, I’m feeling a bit wistful about those poor, lost ovals that will never be anything but a line on paper. I feel as though I’ve let them down, abandoned my creations on the very cusp of coming into being.

Perhaps there is a way to make it up to them. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing anyway —taking a moment here and sitting quietly by myself.

Drawing, drawing, drawing.
Alley Oop
Alley Oop lived a long, long time ago. Perhaps it’s time to let him die.

I can’t say that I’m a big, long-term fan of the comic strip, but it is one of several which are still around from my youth. As such, it has a special place in my cartoon universe. That’s what makes this so hard for me to write.

The attraction of the strip for me was its characters — particularly Alley Oop himself. For a Neanderthal, he is quite good-looking: thick chest, complete with hair. No neck, but a great haircut. And those forearms! They’re huge, like a gorilla’s. Alley is the original monkey man; for that, I give him high honors.

And he’s monkey strong, too. “He rides thru the jungle tearin’ limbs offa trees,” says the only rock and roll tune ever to star a cartoon character. “He’s the toughest man there is alive,” it goes; practically a super hero.

Or used to be. In 1971, “Alley Oop” began the slow decline that most strips suffer when their creators let them go. V.T. Hamlin launched the strip in 1932 and saw it through to its modern, evolved state. After he quit, it has continued under a number of hands. To my eyes, though, it is now nothing more than a cartoon zombie. No personality, no center of gravity, no reason for being. Even Alley’s monkey strength and toughness are gone. He languishes these days in the Classified section of my local paper — normally the last stop before the abyss for a comic strip.

I wish we could nudge him into that abyss and put him out of his long, attenuated misery, but that won’t happen. He’s still running in over 600 papers around the world, though I can’t imagine why. The NEA syndicate and Jack Bender, who currently draws him, will keep the zombie lurching forward as long as he can make them money.

I can’t fault them, I guess. That is the sad reality into which cartoon characters are born. But it does feel wrong for this noble savage to suffer such a fate — trapped in a twilight world of lame plots and edgeless characters, possibly forever.

The king of the jungle jive deserves better … including a decent burial in a deep, deep cave.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee