Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cartoon Crossroads Columbus!

Dustin Harbin's poster. Had I been thinking clearly, I would had all the guests sign it. But, since I lost the damn thing while packing up anyways, guess it don't matter.

I’m back from my hectic opening leg of the Trashed book tour, a back-to-back-to-back tour schedule of SPX, a week of signings and interviews in France, then straight to the new CXC fest in Columbus. I thought I’d crawl home, exhausted, but it turned out to be just the opposite! In fact, my head is still reeling, especially from the CXC weekend. 

And it’s Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, the new show on the indy comix circuit,  I want to write about today. CXC is the brainchild of comics rockstar Jeff Smith, his wife and business partner Vijaya, and the founding curator, now retired, of the BIlly Ireland Cartoon Museum at Ohio State University, Lucy Caswell. These folks, more than any others, have put Columbus, Ohio, on the comics map, and now they're looking to make the city one of the biggest comics towns in the country. Their idea was to start a comic festival that will grow into one of the most important. After this so-called “soft launch” debut, I have no doubt it will achieve just that.

Weds. morning I'm relaxing on the bank of the Seine in the heart of Paris.
That evening, I'm in Columbus! Yeah, life is f-ing GOOD!

As many of you know, I’m a product of the Columbus comix scene. My cartoons were first published in the Ohio State Lantern. As were Jeff Smith’s first Bone efforts. Our Lantern careers overlapped, in fact. My last year was his first year on the paper, or so we figured. It was then that I met Lucy Caswell, who became a mentor. So when I was asked to participate in this debut CXC, my answer was an enthusiastic yes. I didn’t want to miss a minute of it, so I cut short my France trip and flew directly from Paris to Columbus to make it in time for the opening event. The schedule called for two days of seminars, Q&As and screenings at Ohio State University, then a one-day expo at a downtown venue (this will be expanded to a two-day expo in a much larger venue, starting next year). Jeff and Lucy used their star power and many connections to round up a list of guests that can only be described as epic: Art Spiegelman, Francoise Mouly, Lalo Alcaraz, Kate Beaton, Grace Ellis, Jaime Hernandez, Katie Skelly, Bill Griffith, Jeff Lemire, Craig Thompson, Dylan Horrocks…. holy crap! I assumed I was added to help put away chairs.


Always feels good to be back in C-bus, where it all began for me. 

I made it to the downtown hotel by 6 pm. Threw on some fresh deodorant and a new shirt and hopped the #2 bus. I stepped off to the familiar surroundings of campus. I never tire of visiting  the place that transformed me. Ohio State University, one of the nation's largest,  isn’t for everyone, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t choose it today were I 18 again, but in 1979 it was the perfect school for me. Everything good in my life I can trace to this school and that time. It’s where I began my career. It’s where I met my wife. My life would be dramatically different, and nowhere near as good, if not for Ohio State. So whenever I walk around campus, I just let the good karma wash over me in waves.

The opening event was a screening of rare Walter Lantz cartoons, hosted by animation historian Jerry Beck. As I strode into the lobby of the Wexner Center, I found a dozen pals from the comics world. Once the cartoons started, the jet lag kicked in. I made it through the first two, some crazy Oswald the Rabbit features I’d never seen before, fell asleep for five or six cartoons, then awoke just in time to catch the last two, both Tex Avery masterpieces from the later stage of his career. 

Bill Griffith chats with animation historian Jerry Beck. At the table in back I can make out Lucy Caswell, Jeff Lemire, Dylan Horrocks, Craig Thompson, and Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly.

Afterwards was a special dinner for the VIP guests, at a wonderful bistro in German Village, a quaint section of Columbus, of brick streets and lovely old houses. I can’t even recall who drove us there, that’s how punchy I was, but I soon snapped awake, for greeting me with an ear-to-ear smile and outstretched arms was my old friend and prof, Lucy Caswell. I could have chosen to sit next to an array of comix legends, but eating and chatting with Lucy was all I wanted to do. I always tried to make it down to Ohio State at least once a year, but those of you who know Lucy know the word “driven” was coined for her. Anything longer than a 10-minute chat and I felt like I was upsetting the entire comix world, so this opportunity, to shoot the breeze for an hour, is one I’ll always remember.

“I am so very proud of you and all you’ve accomplished,” she told me. I almost burst into tears! 

I toughed it out until midnight (keep in mind I was still on Paris time, so I’d been up for over 24 hours at this point) then went back to the hotel, fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead.


L-R: Tom Spurgeon, Eric Reynolds, Jim Rugg, Chip Mosher.

This was slated as a day of seminars and tours at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum at Ohio State University, which everyone calls simply The Billy, and the neighboring Wexner Center for the Arts. I ran into Chip Mosher of Comixology and fellow creator and Angoulême cohort Gregory Benton in the hotel lobby, both wondering how they were going to get to campus. Some of the logistical details at the fest were still being ironed out, rides being a main issue. I wound up volunteering as an informal tourguide throughout the weekend and Chip, Greg and I took the Neil Ave. bus directly to campus. Thank God Columbus hasn't changed the bus routes in 30-plus years! The first seminar, scheduled for 9 am, was packed. Standing room only. Unfortunately, the auditorium in the Cartoon Museum was being used for a class, so the seminars got bumped to a smaller room. Feh. Where are Ohio State's priorities?  This first one was on “The Business of Comix” with a panel of Fantagraphics editor Eric Reynolds, creator and micro-publisher Jim Rugg and Mosher. Tom Spurgeon, of the Comics Reporter website and the festival director (he moved to Columbus for the gig!) was the moderator.

It was a great panel, more aimed at the up-and-coming creators, not an old warhorse like me. The only important point they left out, and I consider this a key to a successful comix career, is pick an affordable city as your home base! It's no longer a requirement to live in NYC or Seattle or San Francisco and, frankly, you're a fool if you do. Even hipster hotspots like Portland or Denver or Austin are expensive enough to make life hard. Pick a funky town with a tight comix scene like Columbus, or Cleveland or Pittsburgh, where rent is cheap. I should have raised my hand and brought this up, but I was in serious need of coffee.

A competing comix event was taking place on campus, the SOL-con, the Black & Brown Comics Festival. Jaime Hernandez and Lalo Alcaraz were the A-list guests. CXC partnered with this event.

Shooting the shit in the Wexner cafe (surprisingly good food for a campus joint) with L-R Gregory Benton, Chris Pitzer of Adhouse Books and Jim Rugg. The first of many such confabs.

After checking out SOL-con, I wandered down to the Wexner Cafe with a group of comix folk to grab a late breakfast. The conversation was so engaging, I wound up missing the next hour of seminars…. and subsequent conversations caused me to miss ALL the day’s seminars! I can’t say I felt any great loss, not because those seminars weren’t interesting, some of them sounded terrific, but just because those small conversations were so utterly fun and fascinating. We comix types don’t gather in one place very often, so when we do it’s a real treat for everyone. I hear Dylan Horrocks' seminar on writer's block was outstanding, and the second Business of Comix was also a winner, especially since webcartoonist Scott Kraus used it as a forum, once again, to settle his many, and mostly imaginary, scores. That kind of thing is always fun!

After breakfast, Frank Santaro and Chris Pitzer of Adhouse Books wanted to go bin diving. Ken Eppstein, a Columbus comix publisher who I’ve dubbed the Stan Lee of Columbus Comics (that really pisses him off!), suggested a nearby comix shop that had just gotten in a dozen boxes of virgin back issues. But Ken, who is more disciplined than the rest of us, didn’t want to miss the seminars, so I once again volunteered to be the guide. I walked a pack of comix folk a mile to the shop…. and it was closed! It was supposed to be open. We checked before setting out. Guess the owner slept in that day. Here he had a half dozen well-known creators staring forlornly through the window, ready to dig and buy. That pretty much sums up comic book shops, no? Hard to believe they’re all closing.

Frank Santaro and I (see reflection) lamenting.

So back to the Cartoon Museum. Immediately, I ran into Shena Wolf and John Glynn, the editors at Universal Press, the fine folks who post my retro City strips on . They wanted to caf up at the recommended Kafe Kerouac Coffeehouse, but were trying to figure out how to get there. Once again, I led the expedition. We ran into Dark Horse’s David Scroggy on the way, and since it was lunchtime, we eventually wound up at the classic Blue Danube Diner, north of campus.

Universal Press' Shena Wolf and John Glynn, and yours truly, at the Kafe Kerouac, a must stop if you're visiting Ohio State. They make a killer latte and have a $2 bottomless cup-o-joe. AND carry an array of indy comix! What's not to love?

Visiting campus these days is somewhat of a melancholy experience. The university, and its corporate partners, are hellbent on bulldozing the entire campus and its adjoining commercial district. They are pillaging and burning up and down High St., the lively commercial district that runs the length of campus’ eastern border, and is, or rather was, in my experience, the best part of Ohio State. Ten years ago, the university bought and bulldozed the South Campus bar district, which the bigshots long regarded as a “black eye” to the university, and replaced it with a soulless, half-empty shopping mall of chain stores and eateries, which, apparently is not a black eye. Now the bigshots are planning the same thing for the center of the High St. strip, right at the main entrance to campus. A number of iconic mom-and-pop operations, some which stretch back three decades to my era, are being forced out or have already closed. The result will be more dreary new buildings and more chain stores. Let’s brainwash our kids to bow before the corporate monolith! Only the North campus stretch has escaped. The Kafe Kerouac, which came along after my time but would have fit in beautifully, is a funky coffeehouse and used bookstore and serves as the unofficial salon of the Columbus comix scene. The nearby Blue Danube Diner was a favorite of mine. I’d often treat myself to Sunday breakfast there and spend hours swilling coffee over the newspapers and my sketchbook. Also of note, right across from the Danube, was the Monkey’s Retreat comix shop, which had an eye-popping stock of offbeat comix, back in the days when indy comix were just on the rise. It’s long gone, but it was Monkey’s Retreat that planted the seed in my mind for my own career, even if it took five years for that seed to germinate. Curiously, Jeff Smith, who followed me as a cartoonist for The Lantern, tells a similar tale! It was browsing at the Monkey’s Retreat and stumbling across an issue of Raw, where he got the idea to try Bone in comic book form. I was more a Weirdo man.

At the 'Nube. Shena, John (in motion) and David Scroggy.

Meanwhile, at the Danube, Scroggy regaled us all with tales of Pacific Comics, the publisher that kicked off the indy comics revolution back in the early 80s. Scroggy was the editor and brought the comix world Kirby’s last work, Capt. Victory and the Galactic Rangers, Dave Steven’s Rocketeer, and new work by Steve Ditko, Mike Grell and Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer. I wanted to know all about working with Kirby, and Scroggy had plenty of stories. I’ll save those for a later post.

Lunch took hours, and when I delivered the trio back to the Cartoon Museum, I ran into Dylan Horrocks, who had just finished up his seminar and was craving, of all things, donuts. Dylan, who I’ve long admired, I first met just a few weeks prior at SPX, and we spent a delightful, if sunstroked, afternoon walking the length of the National Mall together, after a VIP tour of the original comic art holdings at the Library of Congress. “I have to get donuts whenever I visit the states,” he said with a grin. “Do you know of a good donut shop?” Well, of course I did! I led him to the legendary Buckeye Donuts, another High St. landmark. We spent an hour there munching donuts and talking comix. 

Dylan Horrocks at Buckeye Donuts. Bliss achieved.

We made it back just in time for the Conversation with Bill Griffith at the Wex. Bill talked about Zippy and his experiences in San Francisco’s vibrant underground comics scene in the early Seventies, and about his new graphic novel Invisible Ink: My Mother's Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist. This was followed almost immediately by Jeff Smith in conversation with Kate Beaton and Craig Thompson. Beaton, in particular, was absolutely delightful, infectiously laughing at her own comments, which were indeed hilarious. It’s no mystery why her comic is so good! 

Then it was off to another VIP dinner, this at a tapas bar near the hotel. We were supposed to shuttled there by a fest volunteer, but none could be located, so the head curator of the Cartoon Museum, Jenny Robb, drove us there. Talk about a celebrity taxi! My wife met me at the restaurant, the first time we’d seen each other in three weeks, thanks to my tour in France. She was also a student of Lucy’s, like me a student in the very first History of Cartoons class that Lucy offered. In fact, several of us begged Sheryl, who was an editor at The Lantern,  to take the class, so we could meet the minimum roster size, or else the University would cancel it. She and I were not yet dating, so she had no real interest in cartoons, but she agreed.  The class is still being taught today. Sheryl's contribution to comix history!

My wife, Sheryl, and Lucy Caswell. 

Me and Bill Griffith!

The highlight of the evening? I found myself talking one-on-one for an hour with Bill Griffith! What a nice guy, which was no surprise since his rep as one is well known. We talked at length about process and comix history…. wow. I’m still feeling the buzz. What a great end to a great day!


Finally. Expo day!  The location was the funky, old Columbus Cultural Center for the Arts, a lovely red-sandstone, historical building in downtown Columbus. This was the “soft launch,” as the organizers  described it. In future years, the expo will expand to two days and move to a much larger venue, the new main library. The hope is the expo will soon be a mirror of TCAF in Toronto, which is also housed in the library. The seminar days were old hat for the Cartoon Museum. They’ve been holding a tri-annual festival for decades, sort of a comix academic summit. It was pretty wonky, but attracted dozens of star cartoonists, mostly from the comic strip and political cartoon world. The first occured a month after I graduated, and Lucy Caswell made sure I had access to every event and VIP gathering. Blew my mind, meeting Jules Feiffer, listening to Berke Breathed rant about his syndicate, and having Mike Peters gush over examples of my political cartoons. But an expo, with all the logistical hurdles, that’s a whole different challenge.

There was only room for about 50 tables, but the list of exhibitors was the equal of a major show. I didn’t doubt for a second this was going to be a home run, but Spurgeon and Lucy were plenty nervous as the opening bell approached and only half the exhibitors had shown. They were shaking their heads and talking about moving tables together to fill in the blank spaces. I told them to relax. This was indy comix standard operating procedure. Most of these folks could set up in five minutes, and normally did just that. And sure enough, at 11 am, all the tables were full. The doors opened and the fans poured in. 

J.t. Dockery

Jenny Robb, curator of the Cartoon Museum, and Chris Pitzer

The expo was packed all day long. There was a constant line at my table, which is a great problem to have, but it meant I had no time to wander and check out the wares of other exhibitors. This is my reality at every con now. Like I wrote, a nice problem to have. I like tabling. I know lots of folks don’t and many who rise to “special guest” status prefer to just sign for an hour or two. Me, I like manning a table for the whole fest. Maybe it’s because I came to this so late in life, and worked as a comix hermit for much of my career, especially during my comic strip years, that I now want to meet as many fans as I can in the time I have left. It's purely selfish on my part. 

The Giant Floating Heads of me and Tom Spurgeon.

I had two talks scheduled. The first was a one-on-one conversation with Tom Spurgeon, which I didn’t realize was even on the schedule until a volunteer mentioned it 15 minutes before the session! The room was packed. Standing room only, in fact. That I hadn’t prepared at all would have been a worry, if not for Spurgeon, who always does his homework and has such a breezy, conversational interview style that my total lack of prep was no problem at all. People told me later they really enjoyed it. The second was a podcast with Gil Roth, who also had done his homework and presented an entirely different set of questions. I’ll post the podcast here when he posts it. 

Art Spiegelman

Jeff Smith

With two hours devoted to interviews, the expo flew by. Before I knew it, it was 6 pm and time to tear down. The big finale of CXC was Jeff Smith in conversation with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly before an overflow crowd at the Columbus College of Art and Design. It’s very impressive how so many civic entities have hopped on board. This is an indication that this festival will soon be one of the best and biggest in the country. You heard it here first. Move over SPX and MoCCA, here comes CXC! And, as a comix creator or fan, if this fest wasn’t on your radar, it sure as hell should be now! 

An after-party at a bar in the brewery district wrapped up the official events. The following morning as I was waiting in the lobby for Gregory Benton to come down for breakfast, Jeff Lemire, creator of Essex County, about to leave for the airport, walked up and introduced himself! This was my only beef with this epic weekend. There were so many amazing people in attendance, I simply didn’t have time to talk to them all, or to even meet some of the folks I badly wanted to. I didn’t talk to Art and Francois at all. Had only brief conversations with Jeff Smith and Craig Thompson, mainly because I couldn't tear myself away from other conversations. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day!

Outside the after party: Caitlin McGurk of the Cartoon Museum, Spurgeon and Jeff Smith. 

What a festival! Mark CXC on your 2016 calendar right now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

And we're off.

Here's a rundown of the booktour schedule (so far). More events may be added.

SPX Comix Fest, Washington DC, Sept. 19 & 20.

France Tour, Sept. 22 to 30 (see post below for details).

CXC Comix Fest, Columbus OH, Oct. 1 to 3

Official Book Launch, Mac's Backs (in conjunction with The Grog Shop), Cleveland
Sat., Oct. 17, 7-9 pm. Slideshow talk and signing.

Comics Arts Brooklyn, Oct. 7 & 8 (probably a few more NYC signings this week, too).

Miami Book Fair, Nov. 20-22

Genghis Con, Nov. 29, 2-7 pm, Cleveland.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Look what showed up in the mail!

It's my favorite part of the whole, long process of making a book, that moment when the first copy arrives on my doorstep, fresh from the printer, and I hold the book in my hands for the first time. It's such a emotional payoff– satisfaction, relief, excitement, all mixed together. 

Don't get too excited, though, because this is the French version! It's being released at the same time as the US version. I won't see copies of the latter  for a few more weeks. My French publisher bought it sight unseen, thanks to the sales of both Mon Ami Dahmer and Punk Rock et Mobile Homes. Happily, when he finally did read it, he liked it a lot. 

So my summer vacation is almost over. I've spent the last couple months dicking around the house, tackling some rehab projects, cleaning out clutter from attic and basement and generally just loafing and recharging, after the year-long marathon to finish Trashed in record time. I actually feel kind of guilty taking time off and doing very little worthwhile. Curse this Protestant work ethic!

I have a couple assignments I've been sitting on, which I now have to rush to complete before I hit the book tour road. I don't know if it was a mental block or what, but I just couldn't get started on them. Guess I shouldn't have taken that break. 

So Trashed will debut at the SPX comix fest in Washington DC, Sept. 19 & 20. I'll be a featured guest. It's well worth a trip to attend this con. It is simply amazing. After SPX, I hop a flight to Paris the next day for a two-week tour of France, my fifth visit since Mon Ami Dahmer was released in 2013. It's been the highlight of my career, that's for sure. Once that wraps up, I fly directly to Columbus, Ohio for the new CXC comix fest on Oct. 2 & 3, run in conjunction with the Ohio State Cartoon Library. Talk about a line-up of heavy hitters: Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Jaime Hernandez, Dylan Horrocks, Jeff Smith, Craig Thompson.... and, gulp, me. Presumably, I was invited to help put away chairs. Then home.... and collapse. That's just the first leg of the book tour!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The LA Times takes down Ted Rall

Reprinted from the LA Times, under the Fair Use provision.

This is a bizarre story that's been playing out for the last couple weeks. Colleague Ted Rall was sacked by the LA Times, where he has contributed freelance cartoons and blog posts for several years. Not just sacked, but publicly shamed by a reporter and editor for "fabricating" an incident with an LA cop.... 14 years ago. 

Now, Ted gets fired a lot. He's a cartoon provocateur and a relentlessly savage satirist. He's also a passionate leftist radical. None of these traits are welcome in today's emasculated corporate media, especially as newspapers make their final, flailing laps in the tar pit. One of his favorite subjects was the LAPD, one of the nation's worst forces (remember Rodney King?). He made a series of deliciously nasty cartoons about the cops and quickly became Public Enemy #1 in the cop shop.

Fourteen years ago, Ted got hassled for jaywalking by an LA cop with an attitude. Ted wrote he was cuffed and humiliated on the street until onlookers started to yell at the cop for his behavior. The cop eventually released him, tossed Ted’s drivers license into the gutter and left without citing him. Rall filed a complaint with the LAPD and was blown off. He described all this in a blog post  for the LA Times last month in one of his frequent critiques of the LAPD.

An unnamed party at the LAPD then produced a fuzzy audio recording of the incident and passed it to the paper as proof that Ted was lying! WHY was the cop recording this rather (sorry) pedestrian incident? Unknown. This is long before body cameras and the current technology that has documented so many cop abuses. It's an awful recording, probably made with digital cassette, the typical device in 2001, and it’s a dubbed copy to boot. Of the 6:20 minutes total, all but about 20 seconds is inaudible static and noise. Parts of it have nothing audible except the cop bizarrely whistling to himself! The LAPD told the Times editors, laughably, that this tape proves Rall made it all up.  There was no confrontation, there was no crowd of onlookers and Ted was never cuffed. The exchange between Ted and the officer was polite and Ted never protested how he was being treated.

Incredibly, the editors bought it, fired Ted and editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg penned a stunning dismissal letter to Rall that was published on the editorial page. "The Los Angeles Times is a trusted source of news because of the quality and integrity of the work its journalists do. This is a reminder of the need to remain vigilant about what we publish."

Rall is a Pulitzer finalist and has won a Robert F. Kennedy Award and is a former president of the Assoc. of American Editorial Cartoonists.... and the LA Times just labeled him a fabricator, the kiss of death in the newspaper biz. The paper is trying to destroy his career here!

Ted stood his ground. Yeah, he writes, the exchange was polite, because I never argue with a cop! This is not only totally believable, it’s incredibly smart. Sandra Bland was dragged from her car and slammed to the ground for the heinous crime of being “uppity.” Eric Garner was choked to death for talking back to cops. Hell, clamming up is standard operating procedure for anyone of my generation, which Ted is, even white guys. Talk back to a cop and it will go badly for you. We all learned that as teenagers, even in the small Ohio town where I was raised!

A closer examination of the two pieces of  "evidence" the cops supplied to the editors and it all quickly falls apart. It appears  a police phone log was forged (some of the dates are wrong).  As for the damning, fuzzy recording, Ted had it cleaned up and enhanced by a recording engineer, and there WERE onlookers yelling at the cop. The "source" insists there were none, as does the editor. There are parts of the tape where the only thing that can be heard is the cop strangely whistling a tune to himself. When the whistle was stripped away, voices from onlookers are heard. It sounds as if one woman tells the cop to take off the cuffs!  Enough is there to throw suspicion on the whole tape. The evidence now indicates that Ted's account was accurate and, more importantly, that the tape had been doctored, with parts muffled and the whistling added to cover up what really happened!  Isn't this a crime? Unbelievably, the LA Times fell for this horseshit and, even after questions arose, the Times has not changed its decision or apologized for trashing a cartoonist's reputation. What reporter or editor would fall for this clumsy attempt at retribution? Very bad ones. Why didn't they demand the original tape, rather than rely on a poor-quality dupe? Didn't it occur to them that it may have been doctored? Not exactly hard to do with modern technology.

Sorry, any hint of doctoring "evidence" and that invalidates it all. That's how it works, especially when it concerns an RFK winner and  Pulitzer finalist. But, of course, editors don't really think those cartoon awards are anywhere near as important as those same awards given to reporters and columnists. 

Ted had a six-year run at the Times. That's longer than a freelance cartoonist can expect these days. Freelancers get let go all the time. What makes this so unacceptable is that jaw-dropping editor's note, a public tar-and-feathering based on the flimsiest of evidence, which is now highly suspicious. I've never seen anything like it. When Jeff Stahler, the fulltime political cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch was fingered for several instances of plagiarism, as great a journalistic crime as fabrication, he was allowed to quietly resign and the paper issued no explanation whatsoever. Stahler continues to draw a syndicated political cartoon and a syndicated humor panel. Ted gets pillared for, what, exactly?

So what's really going on here?

One must assume city hall was putting big time pressure on the Times to muzzle Ted. In the current sad state of media, especially local media in any given city, corporate newspapers are now toothless watchdogs. Think about all the recent cases of police abuse. Have a single one of them been uncovered by a newspaper? No, they’ve all surfaced because someone recorded it on a cellphone or got ahold of security video and posted it online!  Or a witness posted an account on facebook. Then, when it becomes viral, the newspaper jumps in, and only then, pathetically galloping in the wake of the viral stampede. Newspaper editors are scared to take on the cops. They’re scared of the backlash from readers (or, to be more accurate, from the horde of feces-throwing commenters on the papers’ website). They’re scared of getting in a war with city powers. They’re scared of losing advertisers. Newspapers once monitored the Man. Now they are the Man, servile mouthpieces for corporate powers. Control the press, control the peasants. It's the oldest play in the book. The problem newspapers have, however, is that the peasants aren't reading anymore. Local TV news operations are even more pathetic. Anything beyond the weather is more than their skill set can handle.

There’s an all-too-cozy relationship between the corporate press and the authorities and it's been this way since Reagan took office. That's not a coincidence, since it was Reagan who gutted media ownership rules that limited how many tv-radio-newspaper outlets a corporation could own. By the end of his term, virtually every family-run media had been greedily gobbled up by a giant conglomerate. The era of powerful, muck-raking papers is, sadly, dead and gone. I caught the tail end of it at the beginning of my career. By the end of the Eighties, the daily press was muzzled by the corner office types who had replaced the old press baron families, and by the compliant stooges they hired as editors. For an all-to-brief time, the muckraking spirit lived on in the weekly press, until that genre, too, hit the rocks. Now? We have nothing. I consider the loss of the watchdog press the greatest threat our democracy has faced since the Civil War. 

Rall is a polarizing figure, and I imagine there were editors at the LA Times that hated his stuff. Corporate editors don't want their sleepy days interrupted by angry phone calls from readers and officials about some fucking cartoon, especially a freelance cartoon. There's a reason all the political cartoonists have been laid off. At most, editors want a mild cartoon chuckle of the day to spice up their boring editorial page, nothing more. There were also probably budget pressures. Tribune Inc., the Times parent, is in bankruptcy and has been on a downsizing frenzy. You can imagine the budget discussions in the newsroom. Why are we paying this guy for freelance cartoons when there are reporting jobs that are left unfilled? Political cartoonists, sadly, are an antiquated luxury from a better time.

Ted's made few friends and lots of enemies for his take-no-prisoners bravado. His rather petty takedown of the revered Art Spiegelman in a cover story for the Village Voice continues to generate hard feelings from comix folk, 16 years later. He's had a long-running feud with cartoonist Danny Hellman that wound up in court.

I like Ted. He's loud, sure, and a BIG personality, and that rubs some the wrong way, but when I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2002, he was one of the first to contact me and offer to help keep my strip going as I struggled through chemo. And I respect him as an absolutely fearless political cartoonist. He's paid a price for that. The LA Times incident is, unfortunately, just the latest bill.

Ted has always been an alternative cartoonist who nonetheless stubbornly tried to work in the mainstream. The money was better, and the audience was bigger. It’s never been a good fit. As a result, as mentioned before, he gets fired a lot: for criticizing 9-11 widows, war hero Pat Tillman, on and on.  He pisses off the Right with his unapologetic Marxist leanings, he pisses off the Left with his relentless bashing of Obama. The Daily Kos famously banished him for the latter, using the tired liberal stance that any criticism of Obama must be racist. He never tempers his opinion. I don’t think Ted is capable of tempering! The rest of our ilk stuck to weekly papers, and, even working exclusively for those rags, we’ve all been sacked on ocassion  when cartoons crossed some kind of random line. I always marveled that Ted was someone able to make a go of it the daily press. Obviously that has come to an end. 

And here's the topper, one that pushes this from a sorry case of a gullible editor into a full-blown conspiracy. The publisher of the LA Times, Austin Beutner, ran for mayor in 2012 and is rumored to be making another attempt in 2016. That's right. The paper that is all about "integrity" is run by a guy who wants to be mayor! This is a HUGE ethical violation in the newspaper world, especially since the guy was publisher, then mayoral candidate, then publisher AGAIN. Maybe that's   ok at shithole infotainment media like FoxNews, but at a major newspaper? I'm not aware of any other case like this.

How's that going to work, exactly? How'd you like to be a reporter covering your boss' campaign? What happens if he wins the job? Will he step down, or order the paper to print glowing editorials and columns about what a great job the new mayor is doing? It is completely plausible that Ted was given the boot on orders from Beutner, who wants to smooth things over with the LAPD to enhance his political ambitions.

Here's another tidbit. A large chunk of the LA Times now belongs to a large investment firm which is tied to the LA police union pension fund. So ownership and the guy running the paper have clear motives for muzzling Rall. This stinks in SO many ways. I call bullshit.

That, friends, is the sad state of the daily press in 2015. 

The LA police union is gloating over Rall's ouster and gleefully states "We hope other media will take note."  Yeah, I'll bet. Criticize the cops and lose your job. Take note, indeed.

So what now? The LA Times has clammed up. The “editor’s note” about Ted is still on its website. I suspect Ted will sue and eventually win some kind of settlement, because it sure appears the Times was in the wrong and got suckered but good. The Times is no doubt hiding behind its lawyers here and will keep the eventual settlement a secret from its readers. 

And this all goes down as another sad episode in the long. slow death of the American press.

UPDATE Aug. 13

Even thought the "evidence" has been proven to be doctored, the LA Times is standing by its decision. There is still an archive of Rall's cartoons and blog posts, but the page leads with this note: "Freelance editorial cartoonist Ted Rall no longer contributes to the LA Times."

The note libeling and shaming Rall is still on the Times' website. Comments are closed and the many comments blasting the Times over this have been removed. Editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg's only comment has been "The Times is not commenting on this topic." Yeah, I'll bet. He left out "...under orders from our legal department." Would Goldberg accept that stance from a government official who was accused of a similar lapse in judgement? Of course not! Said official would be hammered on the Times editorial page.

What's depressing is the scant coverage this incident has received in journalism circles. There's been no mention at all on the main sites like Poynter and Romenesko. In LA, a local tv news operation covered the firing, but then, typically, not the subsequent revelations about evidence doctoring, even though that's a far bigger story. The local "alternative" paper, LA Weekly, hasn't covered it at all as far as I can tell. Weeklies were once the sole watchdogs of corporate daily press, an important role, but now they're all owned by corporations themselves and have been downsized to the point they just cover clubs and beerfests and whoever advertises in their pages. The Times is betting that no one gives a shit about staff drama at newspapers anymore. They're probably right. But the real reason is no one gives a shit about newspapers at all anymore. Bullshit like this has a lot to do with that. 

I suspect this will be unresolved for years or until the LA Times is sold (it's on the block and its bankrupt corporate parent would love to unload it).

UPDATE Aug. 19

The LA Times, under withering criticism from commenters, launched an investigation into whether its actions in the Rall firing were correct and... SURPRISE!!... concluded that the LA Times was right about everything!

Even though its "investigation" turned up several pieces of evidence that corroborated Rall's story, for example whether he had complained to the LAPD that the officer tossed his license into the gutter, the Times somehow spun that. Even though crowd noise can clearly be heard on the restored tape, the Times accusation that Rall made up the crowd stands. Maybe the editors just couldn't hear it over the sound of their lawyers weeping?

Oh. And the Times asked the LAPD to examine the tape and pretty please tell the paper whether it had been altered, and the LAPD.... SURPRISE!!... concluded it had not! The Times couldn't even be bothered to get the tape examined on its own, instead trusting a police department with a long, well-documented history of tampering with and fabricating evidence.

Wow. Really using those journalism muscles there, guys!

UPDATE Sept. 8

A stunner, as LA Times publisher Austin Beutner has been sacked by his corporate overseers in Chicago! Did this have anything to do with the Rall embarrassment? Of course not. It's classic board room head lopping, but the karma of it is nice. The difference, of course, is that Ted was paid a pittance and thrown to the curb. Beutner will float away on a giant golden parachute. These fuckers never lose.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Forty-five years ago I became a comix nut.

My first haul.

Forty-five years ago this week I became a comix nut.

I was 10 years old. I had never really been into comic books, nor had the thought ever entered my mind of becoming a comix creator. I drew for fun, obsessively, but that was it. Yeah, I read Mad magazine when I had the opportunity. What kid didn't? I read the newspaper comics page religiously, too. I liked some of the Saturday morning cartoons based on comic books, like the Superman-Batman Adventure Hour or Spider-man, but the books themselves? The squeaky spinner rack at Vann's Drugstore in my hometown never held much allure to me. I always bolted straight to the toy aisle when my mother said I could pick something out as a reward for tagging along on her errands. When I returned with a Matchbox or Hot Wheels car, she'd invariably say "Pick something out for your little brother." Well, I certainly wasn't going to get him anything as good as my prize, so I'd pluck a random comic book off the rack. This small stack of battered comic books was all we had in our house.

Until July 1970.

Every summer the Family Backderf vacationed at an old lodge in Ontario's "cottage district," a string of several dozen lakes about three hours north of Toronto. We always went to the Wig-a-mog Lodge, on the sunny shore of Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog (above).  It was great. A week of swimming, canoeing, shuffleboard and fishing. My parents vacationed here before I was born and it was a part of my life as far back as I could remember. The water was so clean you could dip your hand in a take a drink!

Wig-a-mog, had a gift shop, above, in the lower level of one of the two main buildings. It was called the Tuck Shop. Not sure what that means. It was a cramped little store, with knotty pine walls. Sliding panel doors covered the front when the store was closed. It was divided into two small rooms. Each manned by one of the bored college kids who staffed the lodge. The room on the right, which takes up most of the photo here, consisted of a long counter, that shielded the more "valuable" wares from guests. The more expensive cheesy souvenirs, and toiletries and batteries, that kind of thing. 

To the left, just off camera in this pic, was another room, which you could enter. The counter in this second room, manned by another staffer, stretched along the back wall. In front of the counter was a candy bar rack. An ice cream freezer was in the corner, and a pop machine. There were all kinds of cheap souvenirs displayed on shelves: pennants, t-shirts, and fake Indian crafts, like miniature totem poles and birchbark canoes. Guests were free to browse and handle the goods in here.

And on a wall rack, behind the counter and safe from sticky kid hands, were comic books. An entire wall of colorful covers. It's hard to see in this bad photo, You can just make them out to the left of the girl at the counter, peaking over the shelves that divided the two rooms. Spot the green and blue buckets there? The top few rows of the comic book rack are visible beyond, on the back wall. It's full size is hidden behind the panels, but I recall it being about eight feet high and at least that wide. The staffer, always a young girl, had to stand on a stepstool to reach the top rows. 

Historically, the big attraction for me was the array of strange and wonderful Canadian candy bars, a completely different variety than the boring Hershey and Mars offerings at home. My little brother and I were each given $5 at the start of the week, big money then. My old man only gave me 50 cents to mow our large lawn, so $5 was like a whole summer's pay!  My brother always blew his wad on Day One on a stupid totem pole or something, but I liked to stretch mine out, supplemented with allowance and lawn-mowing money I'd been saving, so I could buy a couple candy bars each day, making sure to enjoy them luxuriously in front of my now-penniless sibling, who eyed me with seething jealous hatred. 

In 1970, I was 10 years old and poised to enter the 5th grade. The organized kid stuff at Wig-a-mog was beginning to lose its appeal. Capture the flag again? Screw that. So I spent the days by myself, daydreaming and wandering the grounds. Halfway through the week, I was bored stiff. I wandered into the Tuck Shop that afternoon when it opened after lunch and carefully selected my candy bar for the day. As the girl rang it up on the ancient cash register with a loud ka-CHING, my eye wandered up to the wall display. Back home at my local drugstore, the comix were stuffed haphazardly into a spinner rack, but here in the Tuck Shop, spread across an entire wall, it was a mesmerizing visual lure.  I pointed to a copy of Fantastic Four #102 and said "I'll take that, too." An impulse buy that changed my life.

I walked out to a little point, above, jutting into the lake, free from people, and parked under the shade of a spruce tree. Probably that very tree on the left! The twerps in the canoe weren't there. Waves gently lapped at the shore and my nostrils filled with the aroma of water and pine needles. I read the FF as I munched the candy. As I walked back to our cabin, I read it again. Then a third time on the porch. That was it. I was hooked. 

FF #102 was Jack Kirby's swan song at Marvel. Fed up with Stan Lee's ceaseless gloryhogging, he was off to DC to start on his incredible Fourth World project.  In fact, Stan Lee addresses Kirby's loss in the Stan's Soapbox in this very issue, promising the "bushy tailed and bewildered" Bullpen will "turn ourselves on, knock ourselves out and do ourselves in to prove once again we're the boldest and the best!" Groan. Typical hokey doggerel from gasbag Stan. I didn't know any of the backstory back then, but I knew what I liked, and I liked this book. A lot. 

The cover, a John Romita rush job since Kirby quit before he had time to draw the cover, is actually pretty lame. Not sure why this book caught my attention. Maybe my curiosity was peaked by the FF Saturday morning cartoon of a couple years previous. But the story inside grabbed me and didn't let go. This was my introduction to Kirby and I'd never read anything like it. I was fascinated by the power and flow of his artwork. 

As Kirby books go, it's a pretty pedestrian one. That last year at Marvel, Jack was mailing it in– well, by his standards anyways– while furiously (and secretly) developing the New Gods for rival DC. But I didn't know that at the time and even mailing-it-in Kirby is amazing! I pored over this sequence, especially how he drew with those squiggly muscle shadows. I couldn't stop looking at this art. I wonder, if I had randomly selected a book by another artist, if I would have been so mesmerized? My life and career could have been dramatically different!

I rushed back to the Tuck Shop before it closed, and bought five more books. The next day, I purchased every Marvel book they had in stock, then all the DC ones. By week's end, I had cleared the rack, even the lame titles like Mighty Marvel Western, everything except the girlie romance books, the Archie stuff and the Harvey and Gold Key shit, which I knew was awful. The haul is a who's who of comics greats. Stan was still writing the dialogue for most of the Marvel books, with Roy Thomas handling the lesser titles. DC was entering the peak of its marvelous Infantino era, when Carmine oversaw a fascinating array of titles and concepts.  Outside of Kirby's brilliance, Gene Colan's artwork was like freeform jazz, so fluid and organic. Gil Kane's loosey-goosey figures were mesmerizing. I marveled at Nick Cardy's precision, Neal Adam's delicate linework and Wally Wood's masterful heavy inks. 

I returned to Ohio with a stack of 18 comix, shown at the top of this post, immediately hopped on my bike, rode to the drugstore, strode straight to the spinner rack and grabbed another armload of books. And that was that. I was lost to comix forever. The toys and obsessions of my youth were immediately forgotten. I spent countless hours drawing comix. Here's one of my efforts from later that summer, totally copping Kirby and inspired by that FF #102. Just like that, my life's calling was clear.

1970 was the ideal year to become a comics fan. All the modern masters were still at their peak, or damn close to it, and a new generation of brilliant creators was just entering the field. Both Marvel and DC were offering an exciting array of experimental titles. That would all turn to shit by 1975, of course, when both companies morphed into dull corporate entities, but there was plenty to read until then. And the Silver Age classics were still dirt cheap. Heck, you could find piles of them at flea markets and garage sales! There was so much to read and study I couldn't keep up with it.

Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog was always magic to me, for that reason. The Family Backderf only went there one more summer. My mother disliked the new owner of Wig-a-mog, so we began vacationing in New Hampshire instead. As the years wore on and I tired of mainstream comics, I'd think back wistfully to the Tuck Shop and that sense of wonder I felt discovering comic books for the first time. Would I ever have that feeling again?

In turns out, yes. In 2006, 36 years later, when I returned, this time with my own family. 

I was recovering from cancer treatment, and it was slow going. The cancer was in remission and the outlook for a full recovery and cure was excellent, but I didn't feel that great. I was fatigued all the time and mentally drained. My career had also stalled, as weekly papers began their sad decline. It was the toughest period of my life. Career wise, I decided I needed to try something new. I'd been tinkering with long form comix before I got sick. Got a couple Eisner nominations! But it had been, at that point, four years without a new project. I needed a vacation, someplace by water, to re-charge and rejuvenate. I thought, hey, why not Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog? An online search revealed that Wig-a-mog Lodge was still there, but was now mostly timeshare condos. Ugh. But right across the lake was a classic old-time lodge, Halimar, one I remembered from back in the day. I booked a week there.

Every morning after breakfast, I dragged an adirondack chair to a shady spot on the water's edge, above. Directly across the lake was old Wigamog Lodge. The Tuck Shop was gone, replaced with a gym, but the wooded point where I read that copy of Fantastic Four was still there, unchanged. With a sketchbook on my lap, I burrowed my feet into the wet sand and spent the days thinking and writing, staring across the lake at that point as I did so.

It was here that Otto "The Baron" Pizcock came to me in flash, almost fully formed. Here's how he first looked, above,  in my sketchbook. I grew ever more excited as the book took shape, and worked until sunset every day. My wife grumbled that she was a "comix widow." By week's end, I had conjured up the other characters in Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, and written fully half the book that would propel me into my new career as a graphic novelist.

Once again Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog worked its magic.

That first comic book haul:

Silver Surfer #18 was another of the final Kirby books, this one with the classic "fuck you" last page directed at Lee. It's a book with one of the  most interesting backstories in comics history. I'll get to that ,in detail, in another post.

Amazing Spider-man #88 was a typical example of Marvel's flagship title. Lee and John Romita, his favorite artist, whose work I always found a little antiseptic.

Marvel Tales #28 was one of the fat 25-center reprint books, this one with a couple Ditko Spideys (why were these so much better than the regular title?) and a Ditko Dr. Strange. Whoa. Crazy stuff.

Batman #224. This wasn't anything like the Adam West tv show! That cover was my first glimpse at Neal Adams.

Brave and the Bold #91. Beautiful Nick Cardy cover and inside art.

Astonishing Tales #1. I loved how Wally Wood drew Dr. Doom. Didn't realize it was a greatly diminished Wood. And another Kirby story? When you add in Thor and the Inhumans story in half of Amazing Adventures, Kirby drew FOUR BOOKS in his final month at Marvel! While also working hard on the Fourth World project. No wonder Stan was despondent when Kirby resigned.

Amazing Adventures #2. The Inhumans story is drawn and written by Kirby. To my knowledge, his short run on this title is the only time he received a writing credit during his Marvel Age run, a major beef, along with Lee's shameless glory hogging, that led to Kirby's defection to DC. Note, however, that Funky Flashman still puts his name first. Hard to believe Jack was fed up, huh?

Capt. Marvel #21. My intro to Gil Kane art. Lee always grumbled that his art "looked gay." 

Daredevil #67. I noticed right away there seemed to be as many Gene Colan books as Kirby ones.  Marvel had artists with widely divergent styles. I picked up on that right away.

Flash #199. Chairman Mao lobs a missile at the US! Man, this Cold War stuff was downright hysterical in tone. Hey, let's scare the shit out of 10 year olds! Nothing like propaganda.

House of Secrets #87. DC's horror mags were great fun.

Iron Man Annual #1. Great reprints from 1967. More Colan, drawing Iron Man. And then, Kirby steps in as a guest artist and HOLY SHIT! More Kirby art I couldn't stop staring at, above. I still can't stop staring at it. This is when it clicked for me.I want to draw stuff like this! Yeah, sure, kid. You want to draw like Kirby. Good luck with that! But eventually it led me to my own path.

Justice League #82. Hmmm. The DC books were noticeably less interesting than the Marvel ones.

Marvel Super-heroes #28. These reprint books hinted at a wondrous treasure trove of back issues waiting out there for me to discover. Really wasn't that big a trove, since the Marvel Age only began six years earlier. Of course, when you're only 10, six years is almost a lifetime.

Mighty Marvel Western #10. Ugh. What can I say? I was desperate.

Superman #229. THIS was the world's best-selling title? Yawn. 

World's Finest #195. Another lame book. I couldn't figure out why Batman in his own title was cool and totally square in this one.