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Category: Cartoons

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.
Face Off II
Can we agree that Obama and Romney are both good-looking? Then let me re-assert my corollary: that makes them difficult to caricature.

Studies have shown that there is a kind of golden mean for facial beauty. If you ask people to rate faces according to their attractiveness, you discover that those selected share a surprisingly consistent set of spatial interrelationships among their facial features.
If your features reside within those blessed parameters, then you are easy on the eyes — but hard on the cartoonist.

For starters, it’s difficult to pick any one thing to exaggerate. I’ve tried to stack up the skinny guy wrinkles around Obama’s mouth and eyes, for example, and I’ve had some success with that approach. Unfortunately, that wide grin doesn’t leave a lot of room at the edges. Worse, he ends up looking the same to me every time I draw him, and that is a sign of a failed caricature. I’ve noticed that other caricatures have emphasized those funny-looking lumps between his chin and lips, but I still can’t get the hang of it.

Romney has his own share of lumps and wrinkles, but they never seem to add up to anything recognizable, either. Oh sure, people are able to deduce that it’s supposed to be him, but I want more than that. I want to excite a genuine, gut-level recognition in the minds of my viewers. I’m not complaining, mind you, but is it really necessary to have pretty boy presidents?

Take Bill Clinton, for instance. I wouldn’t call him good looking, even though, during his first run at the White House in 1992, he was known in the Mexican press as El Guapo, the Handsome One. Perhaps they were seeing his straight, good-boy posture and that full lantern jaw. Both are attractive traits by themselves, but Bubba’s good looks break down when seen as a whole.

His puffy eyes sag at the edges, and he’s got some fully packed bags hanging underneath them. The nose looks as if a small tangerine has been grafted onto its tip. He’s got that Elvis mouth, which is good, but it’s been shoved up a bit too close to the nose to fall within the golden mean. The hair, no matter where it sprouts, doesn’t seem to have a coherent organizing principle. The resulting picture is not ugly, to be sure, but Bill is no matinee idol.

My best evidence of his non-beauty, however, is that drawing his caricature has always been easy for me. I can capture his essence almost without trying. Not only are there plenty of features (and spatial relationships among them) to be emphasized, but he also has a garrulous, outgoing persona that provides an array of facial expressions for easy capture.

His predilection for biting his lower lip (even though it’s a transparently phony gesture) somehow lends credibility to his folksiness. Even though it’s a bogus move, I don’t doubt for a moment that he really does feel my pain. It’s like the lip bite is meant to make doubly sure that I know he cares. He’s a fake, but at least he’s real. Like him or not, he has a personality a caricaturist can sink his teeth into.

The present candidates have nothing like that to offer. Obama is cool; Romney is shuttered. Barack never has an unguarded moment, and I can’t get a read of any kind on Mitt’s personality. There may be a there there, but where? In both cases, their even-featured good looks just get in the way.

I admit it, then. I can’t do a decent caricature of Mitt Romney. I take full responsibility for that. On the other hand, I don’t really need my own inadequacy shoved in my face for four years. So please, gentle voter, if you care about me at all (and I’m biting my lip here) don’t vote for this man come November 6. Not because of his character or policies, but because of his blankness. Vote for Virgil Goode or Rocky Anderson or Roseanne Barr or anybody with strange quirks and at least a hint of ugliness — like the rest of us.

And if Obama wins, I promise to master those strange lumps below his lower lip. God damn pretty boy.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee