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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.
I Don't Want a Smartphone
Hell, I don’t even want a cell phone. Oh, I admit that I sometimes use my wife’s. After all, if you want to talk to someone right now, it’s pretty hard to beat a cell phone. Assuming they pick up, that is. It could be made even better, I suppose, if I could somehow break into a person’s thoughts without permission and insert my message then and there. That’s not possible, but it’s coming — probably very soon.

Back to the smartphone: I really don’t want one, but now it appears that I need to get one. The only reason I now need something I didn’t need before is that so many other people wanted to get one. They didn’t need it the way they need food, or shelter, or love; they wanted it because it was more convenient than a cell phone and it was cool — the latest thing. There are now a hundred and fifty million people using these things in the U.S. Thanks to this proliferation, the technologies that smartphones usurp, including pay phones, are harder and harder to find. I have to get one, if only in self-defense. Other peoples' convenience has been turned into my necessity.

I am a little concerned that the more digital crap we have, the more we’re going to be offered, and the more we’re going to consume. That spiral will continue until the whole mess collapses, and we’re back to banging rocks together and living in caves. But that’s not my issue here. I’m a pawn in this technological takeover; I know I can’t stand against the tide. I am not, however, a totally helpless pawn. The one bit of defiance I allow myself is to make the takeover of my life by machines as inexpensive as possible.

My first rule is never to buy anything when it is the latest thing. My most notable success with this approach was to completely bypass the cart machine epoch. Cart machines, if you don’t know, were the music playback technology that existed between vinyl records and cassettes. I never bought one, I never had to “recycle” one, and I’m still feeling good about it. I have resolved to relive that gratifying experience over and over with each new gizmo that hits the market.

This approach does involve some patience, but I am fortified by my natural cheapness. If a product has any long-term usefulness at all, it will be costliest when it is the latest thing and cheapest when it’s been done to death. The wider the usage, the lower the price. If I had bought one of the first Macintoshes, for instance, I would no doubt have exchanged it for one or all of its other brief incarnations before things settled down with the iMac. As it is, I saved a lot of money, got a better computer, and never got left behind.

It appears that we have reached that moment with the smartphone. Everybody’s got one, the prices have come down, the quality has gone up, and those seeking the latest thing have moved on to iPads and their ilk. I guess I can find some satisfaction, at least, in having skipped the cell phone stage altogether, but I still don’t want a smartphone.

I’m getting one, though. The time is right. I have come to terms with the fact that I am participating in the annihilation of civilization. I know that some day the seeds I have sewn by caving into the short-term convenience offered by these technologies will sprout and devour us all. I take my share of the responsibility; like most of us, I have sold out my species and my planet. In my defense, let me just say that I got the lowest possible price.
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.
An Impractical Joke
I bloodied my friend’s nose a while back, and I still feel badly about it. We weren’t fighting; no blows were exchanged. In fact, I wasn’t even there when it happened. But it wasn’t an accident, either.

The weapon was a Groom Mate manually operated nose hair trimmer. I still see them advertised at $19.95, and they’re not available in stores. I can see why; they wreak bloody havoc on the inside of your nostrils. Just ask my friend; I gave it to him as a gift. The gift, I must confide, was meant as a joke. My question here is: was it a funny joke?

Let me state right now that I am not a fan of “practical” jokes, especially those that cause pain or injury. I suppose that a surprise party is one form of practical joke, and such events are pretty hard not to like, but there is very little real humor even with those. Some one is tricked and made to feel a little foolish, but ultimately the source of enjoyment is the surprise of the “victim” and the show of affection given to him. Surprise is a critical element in most humor, too, but I’m sorry — I don’t see any joke in simply tricking people. It can be fun, maybe, but not a joke.

Practical jokes are like a thrill ride at the boardwalk — heightened expectations followed by shock and disorientation, then exhilaration, and in the end, laughing. Unless you barf, in which case there is no laughing (at least not by you).

It’s the same with a practical joke. If it results in barfing, unconsciousness, organ failure, brain death, or bleeding, there might be some laughing, but it would only be of the mean-spirited variety. Think Nelson Muntz of “The Simpsons” (“HA-ha!”). I don’t count that as humor, either. Every movie must have its shot-to-the-balls scene, and every audience will laugh at that scene, but just because they do does not make it funny.

So what about my friend’s bloody nose? Was that my Nelson Muntz moment? Was it a cruel jest and therefore no jest at all? Allow me to mount my defense. For starters, this particular version of the Groom Mate nose hair trimmer came to me through my uncle’s estate. It was, then, a dead man’s nose hair trimmer. I cannot explain to you why that is funny, but it is.

But is that funny enough by itself to cancel out the pain and bleeding, enough to turn agony into laughter? Perhaps not, but consider this: my friend has large, oddly shaped nostrils; nostrils so cavernous that even the shyest bat would be tempted to hole up there. I cannot tell you if there are ancient paintings on the interior walls of his nose, but if there are, you can be sure they are amusing ones. Amusing because nostrils are the funniest apertures in the human body. Consequently, nose hair trimmers, by virtue of their close association with nostrils, are also funny. What’s more, they are funny independently of the unfunny carnage they might cause.

I wasn’t sure when I gave my friend the trimmer that he would actually use it. It had been fully sterilized, of course (what do you take me for?) but it was, after all, a dead man’s nasal mower. I will not use my uncertainty as an excuse, however; I certainly should have known he’d try it. Why wouldn’t I? I’d tried it myself, with the same painful and bloody results. Perhaps that is the lynchpin of my defense: I had used this patently ridiculous product, and I had felt my friend’s pain even before he had.

Even with all this, I’m still not certain the joke was funny. When he phoned me a couple of days later to tell me what had happened to his honker, I did feel some guilt. There wasn’t that much damage, really — a little nip and a little blood — but it was enough to make me tell him I was sorry.

Which raises another question: is it still an apology if you deliver it while laughing?
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon