Monday, June 30, 2014

Gun Fun Report

More Gun Fun from the Lawless tribal Region of Ohio! An open-carry foursome paraded through a racially mixed neighborhood in Cincinnati last week with AR-15s slung over their shoulders, yelling obscenities and racial slurs at passersby and taunting cops. 

“Open carry in the state of Ohio, the cops can’t do nothing!” the leader of the four says on the video (above) he made of the event. “This is going on YouTube, nigga!” he yells to a passing group of black men.

The leader of this foursome is one Jesse DeBoard (above). His Facebook page says he's a Cincy resident and a white rapper who goes by the name LilKrayzie.  Look at this pimply, little MFer. In photos he looks to be about 5'3". Here's the weapon stash of one of the NRA's "good guys with a gun," also pinched off his Facebook page:

Cincinnati proper, long a Republican stronghold, has become surprisingly progressive in the last decade. The city swung the county vote to Obama in 2012. Used to be it was the farthest of far right. "Where the Old South meets Nazi Germany," we here up in liberal Cleveland described it. The surrounding suburbs are hard red and the neighboring rural areas are flipped out militia whackos and rednecks praying to Jesus for the return of the KKK. So these gun fetishists purposely flaunted their shootin' irons in a racially-mixed, liberal neighborhood, like the assholes they are. This is becoming the norm. The fetishists are flashing their pieces in "enemy" territory, to provoke and intimidate. 

DeBoard was later arrested. Not for carrying a gun, but for menacing by stalking and violation of a protection order. You can carry your metal penis openly, but you're not allowed to threaten people on the sidewalk, asshole. The other three also have warrants outstanding and are on the run. The uncensored Youtube video he posted went viral and has since been taken down. The one here is heavily bleeped by a Cincy tv station. I'm guessing our badass creep (if he made bail) is now hiding under his basement stairs and whimpering to himself about a liberal media witch hunt.

 We've had a spate of these in Ohio lately, a state that has virtually no gun restrictions. Two weekends ago a parade of these morons marched through sleepy Medina, Ohio, 30 miles south of where I'm writing this, terrifying passing soccer Moms in mini vans and generating a flurry of 9-1-1 calls from frantic villagers.Medina is a quaint little town, with a beautiful Victorian town square. It's the far reaches of the Cleveland metropolitan area and is a typical suburban Republican enclave of security moms and golfers, but the surrounding rural countryside is populated with nests of the scariest militia creeps I've ever encountered. 

I attended a gun show in Medina a couple years ago, looking for cartoon material and armed with nothing but my sketchbook, which generated more paranoid stares than the guy walking around with a bazooka slung over his shoulder! Once a month, the gun fetishists gather at a gun show at the Medina County Fairgrounds, sandwiched on a weekend between the monthly doll show and model train convention! 

So I decided to check it out. This was a few days after Obama's re-election and the show was so packed with gun fetishists who were certain that the Kenyan was a-comin' for their shooting' irons, that the fairgrounds building was at capacity and I had to wait about a half hour in the cold just to get in the door! 

If you've never been to a gun show, I recommend it, even though you're more likely to be shot there than on city streets. In fact, the next day at this show a gun dealer accidentally shot a customer!  It's quite a spectacle. Creeps, weirdos, white-power nutjobs and all manner of bizarre characters. Lots of Civil War beards and camo. Several dealers were proudly selling Confederate and Nazi paraphernalia. I encountered ONE black dude in the two hours I spent there. This is white boy central here. What's for sale? Everything. Handguns, rifles, assault rifles, combat guns, bazookas, grenades, knives, swords.... one dealer even had a fucking artillery cannon on display! 

According to Pew reach, Americans possess an estimated 283,000,000 guns. Curiously, gun ownership has steadily declined from 54% of Americans in 1977 to under 33% today, but the average number of guns per gun owner has increased from 4 to 7! In other words, the Ammosexuals (to steal Bill Maher's term) are hoarding their boom-booms. 

Oh, and last weekend when our happy foursome were parading in Cincy, there were two accidental shootings at gun shows, one fatal, in Texas and Pennsylvania. 

Doesn't it seem like the Assholes are taking over? These hate-filled loons are multiplying like maggots in a trash can on a hot summer day. We were obsessed with them back in the Nineties after Timothy McVeigh and Ruby Ridge, but were assured by experts they were a tiny group of loner crazies. I fear they're not small in number anymore, and they're organized in NRA fringe groups. Bubbling with rage and resentment, with a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 in the other, barely hiding their racist xenophobia behind rote rightwing talking points, these ignorant paranoids seem to be everywhere. 

Turns out, our greatest Founding Father was Yosemite Sam!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Punk Rock & Trailer Parks news

Otto on the cover of this month's Focus ViF magazine!

A lot of very cool things going on with my debut opus.

First up, SLG has run off a 2nd printing. It won't be distributed per se, but will be used to re-stock the SLG store, Amazon and other bookstores that want to stock the book. Turns out the last 1000 copies of the 1st print were destroyed in a roof leak at the warehouse. I"ll post links when it's available.

The best part of this is that it's a MUCH better print job than the 1st! I know collectors always want that 1st edition, but for pure reading enjoyment, I recommend the 2nd. I'm as pleased with as I was disappointed with the 1st, which was printed on crappy paper and had a totally fucked up trim, so a number of pages had the art butting right up against the edge. All that has been corrected. This is comparable to the French edition Punk Rock et Mobile Homes, which is gorgeous.

There could be more good news about future US releases down the pike. Stay tuned.

Speaking of Punk Rock et Mobile Homes, the book is an absolute hit in France and Belgium! Of all the great things that have happened to me recently, I'd put this one at the top. I expected Mon Ami Dahmer to be a critical and commercial hit, because it was here and in the rest of the English-speaking world. PR&TP, on the other hand, got great reviews when it came out in 2010, but just died when it was released, mostly because of industry events that were out of my control. This grated on me for years, because it's a book I'm very fond of, and very proud of. I think it's better than MFD!

Punk Rock et Mobile Homes came out in France on the heels of Mon Ami Dahmer. Following a bestseller-- the top-selling indy graphic novel in France of 2013, in fact-- makes a HUGE difference, let me tell you. And I had just won an Angoulème Prize for MFD, so I was a hot author. The timing was perfect. Otto did the rest, and the French have absolutely embraced him and my oddball tale of the Rustbelt. 

Punk Rock et Mobile Homes just won the Prix Bulles Zik. Check out this nifty award, hand painted by french cartoonist Joan on a Ramones album cover!

Finally, I know I haven't posted a new page of The Baron of Prospect Ave. in awhile. I've been swamped with work on the upcoming Trashed book. I've never had to flip around a book this fast (it's due at the end of December!) and I'm sweating it. I'm still behind schedule, but I'm wrapping up the writing and pencils on Chapter 2 (of 4 total) today. That's the hardest, and slowest part. I'll try to get a new Baron page up soon. I'm itching to continue the story.

Here's the other three full-page illustrations for Focus ViF.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Same as it ever was

So here we are again, debating whether to Re-re-re-invade Iraq. Hopefully Obama's answer there will be a resounding NO.... but I'm not holding my breath. 

What's remarkable to me, is the corporate news machine is wheeling out the same idiots who advocated--- or, in some cases, orchestrated-- the calamitous Iraq War of 2003. The very morons who fabricated intelligence reports, promised we'd be greeted as liberators, assured us the war would pay for itself when grateful Iraqis gave us free oil in return for their freedom, etc, etc., and their loyal (or gullible) lapdogs in the media.  I can't believe any media outlet would give these idiots a platform to spew up the same blather that was totally, utterly, catastrophically WRONG the first time. Fred Barnes, Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol are all doing the Time Warp back to 2003, with arrogant sneers they puff out their chests and offer the same moldy nonsense.

And HOW in the name of God can Cheney, Condi and Wolfie be greeted with anything but a hail of rotten fruit and catcalls? FAIR calls it right when it states in the report below that apparently  "being wrong about Iraq actually makes you more of an expert."


The contrast to time-warping pundits is this interesting, and very moving mea culpa (below) from sex columnist Dan Savage, who owns up to his own wrongheaded, hawkish support of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Sorry, you'll to click the link below to watch it, since Blogger won't allow embedding videos outside of it's own Youtube, but it's worth a watch.

"I was wrong," he says bluntly. "Spectacularly wrong."

Even more admirable, he apologizes for his (in his own words) "asshole-ish" treatment of critics of that war. Savage was, at that time, post 9-11, expanding his sex column into writing about politics. Why? I dunno. Guess he felt that so many people were following his views on sex that surely his views on politics would be just as popular. Maybe he was hoping to be the voice of his generation. Savage penned a series of foreign policy columns in 2002 and 2003 that demonstrated in no uncertain terms that he should have stuck to writing about dildos and blow jobs.

Not only did he write unbelievably smug screeds, ones that parroted the Bush-Cheney spin, he hurled insults at anyone who dared question the Neocon crappola that Savage had inexplicably swallowed whole.

Here's a sampling:

"That's the lefty argument du jour, and a lot of squish-brains are falling for it." 


"Because we're not just at war with al Qaeda, stupid. We're at war with a large and growing Islamo-fascist movement."


"We're about to go to war again--hello, Saddam!--and it would be nice if the left refrained from sticking its collective head up its collective ass this time."

Yeah. Juvenile insults passed off as punditry. Groovy.

I'm a bit late in discovering this video, because, you see, I've never forgiven Savage for those columns and really haven't read or followed him since. Colleague Tom Tomorrow sent the above video link to me. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I read these columns back in the day. I enjoyed Dan's sex column, and lobbied my paper here in Cleveland to run it. This sudden transformation into a gung-ho chickenhawk was a total betrayal, in my view. The breadth of Savage's apology here, and the heartfelt regret he expresses, I have to say, has softened my view of him. Once enlightenment struck that he'd been had, he vowed never to write about foreign policy again. Would that the repugnant Barnes, Krauthammer et al would follow his lead! Of course, those guys don't have dildos and blow jobs to fall back on. Actually, it's probably a good bet the DO have dildos and blow jobs to fall back on, just not as writing topics.

I was discussing this briefly with Tom and another colleague, Ruben Bolling, who rightly observed "that HE (Savage) was vocally and angrily pro-war is evidence how alone in the media wilderness we were at the time."

Damn straight, and I paid a price for my strong anti-war opinions.

The weekly biz at that time was turning corporate, as big media chains gobbled up locally owned weekly papers left and right. Just like their bigger cousins in the mainstream, alt-weekly media companies didn't think cartoons, like mine above, which I drew a month before the invasion, were good for business. Too many angry emails and phone calls. Too many skittish advertisers who didn't want their ads running on a page with something like that. The whole business got soft in the knees. Which was weird and frustrating, because after 9-11 if you weren't drawing political, or at least topical, cartoons, weeklies weren't all that interested in your stuff. Weeklies were dumping humor strips or narrative strips. The only ones that flourished at that time were longtime political ones like Tom Tomorrow, or ones that morphed into political cartoons, like mine. 

I wrongly assumed editors wanted an alternative to mainstream opinion. Editors didn't come right out and say it, but instead used buzzwords, like this kind of cartoon didn't fit the "tone" of the paper. Or that antiwar stuff was "predictable." Yeah. One of them actually told me that. Oh. OK. Others opted to run one of us in the front of the paper with other political content (this was usually Tom Tomorrow) and said, sorry, but politics don't fit in the part of the paper where we run the other cartoons. Strange how that wasn't an issue a few years earlier. I had other papers that didn't drop me entirely, but just just didn't run ones they deemed to controversial. My strip just didn't appear that week.

Weeklies weren't supporting the pro-war fever in 2002-3, but they sure as hell weren't opposing it either. 

I lost papers in that crazy period right before and after the invasion. Others did, too. That we were proven to be dead right about the war didn't matter.  Once you're gone, you're gone for good.

Dan Savage, on the other hand, didn't lose papers for his pro-war stand. Few papers ran those political columns anyways. They wanted his sex column to add legitimacy to the 20 pages of 900 hooker ads in the back of every issue. His sex column was great (I only put that in the past tense because, like I said, I haven't read it in awhile), but so were our cartoons! We paid the price for being anti-war. Savage didn't pay a price for being pro-war, except maybe to his rep among lefties. 

Hey, I've moved on from newspaper strips, and will likely never draw political cartoons again, but y'know, I'll be perfectly honest and admit that still sticks in my craw a little bit.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

They can't be terrorists. They're white!

Jared & Amanda Miller, on the Bundy Ranch.

Source unknown, it was re-posted on a friend's Facebook page, but this makes some very perceptive points:

1. White terrorists are called “gunmen.” What does that even mean? A person with a gun? Wouldn’t that be, like, everyone in the US? Other terrorists are called simply “terrorists.”
2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.
3. Doing a study on the danger of white terrorists at the Department of Homeland Security will get you sidelined by angry white Congressmen. Doing studies on other kinds of terrorists is a guaranteed promotion.
4. The family of a white terrorist is interviewed, weeping as they wonder where he went wrong. The families of other terrorists are almost never interviewed.
5. White terrorists are part of a “fringe.” Other terrorists are apparently mainstream.
6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.
7. White terrorists are never called “white.” But other terrorists are given ethnic affiliations.
8. Nobody thinks white terrorists are typical of white people. But other terrorists are considered paragons of their societies.
9. White terrorists are alcoholics, addicts or mentally ill. Other terrorists are apparently clean-living and perfectly sane.

10. There is nothing you can do about white terrorists. Gun control won’t stop them. No policy you could make, no government program, could possibly have an impact on them. But hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent on police and on the Department of Defense, and on TSA, which must virtually strip search 60 million people a year, to deal with other terrorists.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

When College Cartoons were Great

I started my comix career as a political cartoonist for the Ohio State Lantern in the early Eighties, as I've written here before. Here's one on Ronnie Reagan (above). It was a great era of college cartooning, an exceptional era, in fact, unmatched, before or since. Student papers in the late Seventies and early Eighties spawned some of the giants of their respective fields; mainstream political cartoons, daily strips, alt-weekly strips, indy comix, you name it. 

I've followed the careers of my accomplished contemporaries at other colleges over the years.  I started this hobby when I was still a student at Ohio State. There was a room in The Lantern offices where stacks of other college newspapers were available, dozens of them. Papers sent each other comp copies back then, in some kind of collegiate sharing arrangement. It was great for me, because I got to check out the competition, both as a fan of comix and to get a heads up on people against whom I'd be eventually vying for jobs, I thought. I was right about that last bit, as you'll see. Curiously, I've met very few of these creators.

I'll start with my predecessors at The Lantern. During an amazing 10-year period, The Lantern was the launching pad for at least a dozen cartoonists who would go on to be pros. My own three-year tenure, from early 1981 to the end of 1983,  landed smack in the middle of this run. People in the comix biz marveled at this output and wondered what the university was doing to foster such a "cartoon factory," as the head of the College Press Syndicate called OSU.

The answer? Not a damn thing. But what Ohio State had was The Lantern, a daily paper with room for comics. And its readership was huge, 35,000 a day, making it the biggest college paper in the country. As an added bonus, it paid for cartoons, $15 each. A pittance (although I had weekly papers that paid less!) but if I did three political cartoons and a couple spot cartoons in a week, I got a $75 paycheck. That was decent money for a student in 1981! More than I could make delivering pizzas and I was making fucking cartoons! The editors used to grumble that I made money more than them. Last time that happened in my career. What a college paper offered more than anything was a chance to be published. I wouldn't be here today if not for The Lantern (as rotten as my cartoons were). 

Brian Basset. He was the first of the outstanding Ohio State cartoonists, starting in 1975. He was an art major who had a jones to draw political cartoons. Basset drew like a pro from day one. Scratch that. Better than a typical pro! The dude was superior to 75 percent of the pro political cartoonists of the era, most of whom were somnambulant geezers who were still drawing with grease pencils and using tired tropes and label-happy cliches from the Fifties. Basset left The Lantern in 1978 for a gig at The Seattle Times, which he held until he was laid off in 1994, an early victim of the downsizing apocalypse that has ravaged newspapers. 

His college cartoons (above) had the heavy Ronald Searle influence that was popular with the new generation of political cartoonists at the time. Man, the S.O.B. could draw. You can see why a big paper snapped him up.

He later created a couple daily comic strips. He's still at it. 

Basset was followed by Scott Willis, who held the political cartoonist job from 1978 until he graduated at the end of 1980. Willis became an even bigger campus legend than Bassett. I started at Ohio State in 1979, in the middle of Willis' tenure, fresh off the garbage truck, a kid with a vague idea of doing something in comix, but not sure what. Every morning, I grabbed a Lantern off the big pile at the entrance to the dorm cafeteria and read it while eating breakfast. It didn't take me long to notice Willis' cartoons. "I could do that," I thought. A year and a half later, I was. 

He wasn't the artistic prodigy Basset was (although he was pretty darn polished by the end) but his gags and ideas were very strong. He wrote a lot more about campus, too, which really resonated with student readers. I noted that. Write to your audience. It's a lesson I always remembered.  Willis wasn't a groundbreaking stylist. Like all of us fledging political cartoonists, his style was a derivative of Jeff MacNelly's, the dominant political cartoonist of the Seventies, and maybe of the last 50 years. And MacNelly himself was an Americanized version of the before-mentioned Searle. Four decades later, political cartoonists are still pathetically aping MacNally, even though he's been dead for almost 15 years! So, for that matter, has the political cartooning genre. The two things are hardly unrelated. But Willis had a very pleasing style in college, I thought. Clean and solid.

Willis' departure opened the door for me at The Lantern, although I had several rivals for the position I had to fend off first. Willis was worshipped in the J-School, by faculty and students alike. Not an easy act to follow. I always felt I came up short in the comparison. I made my mark, particularly as a generator of controversy, but as a college scribbler, I came in a disappointing third to Basset and Willis. At least in my head. 

After The Lantern, Willis landed immediately at The Cleveland Press. A plum spot. I cursed that he got that job, figuring he'd never leave, and it's a position I would have killed for. He was an immediate hilt in Cleveland, easily kicking the ass of the old hack who cartooned at the rival Cleveland Plain Dealer. Leave he did, however, because The Press folded in 1982. By then, Willis had built a rep and was snapped up by The Dallas News. Later he joined the San Jose Mercury-News. He drew a daily panel for awhile, too, although I can't recall the name of it and can't seem to locate that info. Strangely, Willis' online presence, at least for his cartoons, is very sparse. The San Jose paper was horribly mismanaged., so I'm not sure if he left on his own or was laid off. 

I only met him once, when he was with the Cleveland Press. Never told him that he was the one who first inspired me for my short-lived and ultimately disastrous political cartooning career. Willis is now a muralist in California. I love murals. Examples his work are on his site. 

Outside of Ohio State, there were some other college cartoonists who I viewed as my rivals and/or fellow travelers. Whether they had any clue who I was, I don't know. 

Mike Luckovich was the political cartoonist for the University of Washington Daily.  Can't find exact dates of his career there, but he graduated in 1982.  

Luckovich is just about the most successful mainstream political cartoonist of his generation. He has won three Pulitzers and every other major prize in, admittedly, a dying profession, where the competition grows weaker by the year. Even so, he's kept his chops. The mainstream political stuff is not my cup of tea, of course, but I admire the dedication to the craft. He's been with the Atlanta Constitution for many years. His critics gripe that he's predictable, but it's tough job to crank out that many cartoons every week. I certainly couldn't do it! He's not breaking any stylistic ground, true, but those mainstream guys are hamstrung by authoritarian editors who have zero tolerance for experimentation. His college cartoons, as I remember them, were very polished Jeff MacNelly knockoffs and he's still firmly in that school. Lots of ink, lots of cross-hatching. What sets him apart is his writing. The guy is the master of the political gag. 

He also spent the first part of his career kicking my ass! Luckovich Beat me for the top college cartoon award given out yearly by the Society of Professional Journalists. We were both finalists in our final years of college eligibility  That one hurt, because that's the award both Basset and Willis had won.  

A few years later, Luckovich beat me out again, this time for the cartoonist position at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. We were the two finalists for that gig. I was a pro for a paper in West Palm Beach and I think my political cartoons were every bit as good as his at that time, but, if you've ever heard the guy talk, he is a spazzy extrovert. He just fills the room with personality. At age 24, I, on the other hand, was a hunched-over mumbler. He won the interview hands down. He didn't stay there long, and it probably wasn't a very good job, so in hindsight it was a stroke of luck I didn't get it. Six months later, I moved to Cleveland, gave up the political stuff,  and started developing the weirdo comix that would make my "name."

Couldn't locate any of his college toons, unfortunately, or any ones older than a couple years. 

Jack Higgins was a Chicago native who started freelancing for the Chicago Sun-Times right out of college. I became aware of his work through a college journalism newsletter that featured the best of the student press. Higgins stood out from the pack of college political cartoonists. I think he won the big college award, too, but I can't locate any info on that. 

He stepped into the plum job at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1981 just after the death of the legendary John Fischetti, as a fill-in cartoonist. The Sun-Times made him work for the gig and didn't hire him full-time until 1984. He won a Pultizer in 1989. He's unusual in the field. Higgins cartoons almost exclusively about Chicago politics. He's not syndicated and is seldom reprinted anywhere else. He writes for his town alone. Last of a breed. He's an institution in Chicago, which must be cool as hell, and has survived the Sun-Times' many recent travails. Let's hope he continues to thrive there.

Couldn't locate any of Higgins' college stuff, but to my eye, his style hasn't changed much over 35 years. I recall the same heavy brush stokes, lots of cross hatching. I could never master a brush (still haven't) and envied guys like him who did. He's another cartoonist sprung from the MacNelly tradition. We were all drawing that way in 1980. That's what editors wanted. Still do!

Jack Ohman. Up at the University of Minnesota, Ohman was the political cartoonist for over 3 years. He was quite a prodigy. I think he was 17 when he started! Another guy who was very polished at a ridiculously young age. He signed a syndicate deal before he graduated, and was regarded as the next big star political cartoonist. He was regularly reprinted in news mags like Time and Newsweek.

He landed the cartoonist gig at The Columbus Dispatch just as I finally broke into The Lantern. Don't think he had a very good time. The Dispatch was an awful rag, very rightwing, and owned by the meddling rich family that ruled Columbus. He stayed a couple years, then split. He had a long career at the Oregonian, then the Sacramento Bee. Won a Pulitzer. He's still plugging away, certainly one of the the greatest political cartoonists of the era.

He was followed at the Minnesota Daily by Kevin Siers, who had a long career at the Charlotte Observer and also won a Pulitzer. Back to back Pulitzer winners! That's only happened once. These are the guys against whom I was competing, along with a dozen or so others who were good enough to have turned pro, but didn't for one reason or another.

Now it starts to get really interesting.

Bill Watterson. Yep. The Bill Watterson. He was the political cartoonist (that's right, a political one) for the Kenyon College paper.  Here's one of his college cartoons above. Kenyon is a small school about 50 miles north of Columbus where Ohio State is. Very posh with what is routinely ranked as the prettiest campus in the nation. Watterson drew cartoons at Kenyon from 1978 to 1980.

After graduating, he got a pro gig at a dying afternoon daily, The Cincinnati Post. The paper was owned by Scripps, the same company that drove the Cleveland Press, Scott Willis' paper, into the grave. His college cartoon career ended just before mine started, but I remember seeing his cartoons in The Post, copies of which we also received at The Lantern.

The Post fired Watterson after just six months! One of those legendary editor fuck ups (The Seattle Times axed Gary Larsen's first panel, drawn exclusively for them, at about the same time). I wonder if the editors who made those bonehead calls spent the rest of their careers being snickered at in the newsroom? 

The political cartoons themselves are only ok. The Post ones feature a lot of gags about the weather and sports teams. I did similarly lame ones when I started my first pro gig in Florida. It's the mark of a cartoonist without a lot of freedom! Watterson's style here is pretty clunky and overly inked. Doesn't look all that different from Higgins' style, especially the heavy brush. Just a year later, when Calvin & Hobbes debuted to rave reviews, he had upped his artwork many levels. Sometimes it takes awhile to find your genre. I'm a prime example of that!

Here's how Watterson describes his unhappy Post experience: "The agreement was that they could fire me or I could quit with no questions asked if things didn't work out during the first few months. Sure enough, things didn't work out, and they fired me. My guess is that the editor wanted his own Jeff MacNelly, and I didn't live up to his expectations. I was only getting a couple cartoons a week printed. I would turn out rough idea after rough idea, and he would veto eighty percent of them." 

It's no fun to work for a guy like that, I can tell you that from experience.

He was doing political cartoons for a chain of weekly suburban rags in Cleveland when I arrived in 1986 and had just launched Calvin & Hobbes the previous year. But I never met the guy, despite our criss-crossing paths.

Berke Breathed. Every big college paper at the end of the Seventies had one, if not both of the following: a Jeff MacNelly political cartoon clone, and a Doonesbury ripoff comic strip. Breathed drew the latter, The Academia Waltz, for the Daily Texan at the University of Texas from 1978 to 1980. 

The Academia Waltz can generously be described as "inspired by" Trudeau. You see the same Trudeau characteristics: the balloon-less dialogue, and the signature double beat punchline in the last panel. Aw, who are we kidding? It's an outright rip-off, which Breathed himself later freely admitted. But these early strips feature several of the strong characters that would populate later Bloom County, like the smarmy frat boy, Steve Dallas (above) and, more importantly, the writing is exceptionally strong for a college feature.

In 1980, the Washington Post Syndicate tabbed Breathed to develop a counter to Doonesbury, which was distributed by the rival Universal Press Syndicate. What developed was Bloom County.

Gary Trudeau, of course, was the first college cartoonist to make it, when Doonesbury went straight from the pages of the Yale Bullhorn into mainstream syndication in 1970. The arrival of a hippie strip full of political potshots and drug references, on a staid comics page sandwiched between Miss Peach and Andy Capp, blew the minds of an entire generation of would-be comix creators. Over the next decade, hundreds of Doonesbury-esque strips were launched in college papers. Only Breathed's led to a syndication deal. He's the only one. The syndicates wanted nothing to do with strips like that. Corporate media gave that a big thumbs down. Give us another Garfield instead. Trudeau, by all rights, should have been the most influential cartoonist of the Seventies. Instead, he's a stand alone, almost a curiosity.

I myself toyed with the idea of Doonesbury ripoff strip. I opted for political cartoons instead. The reason? To be perfectly honest, because The Lantern printed the political cartoons much bigger!

Trudeau was less then pleased at Breathed's emergence as a lookalike rival, and wrote several letters to Breathed and his editors when Doonesbury gags were lifted or the imitation got a little too close. Breathed responded with potshots of his own. 

"We exchanged some tough letters the first few years of the strip and I was not as respectful as I should have been. A few years later when I'd hoped we could meet and I could apologize, he desperately avoided me."

I met Breathed once, when he visited the very first cartoon fest at the Ohio State Cartoon Museum. I had just graduated a month earlier and was looking for a gig. I wrenched up my courage and introduced myself to him... and he totally blew me off! Couldn't be bothered with a scruffy college cartoonist, even though he himself was one just a couple years earlier. The first of many disappointing encounters with cartoonists I admire. Ha. 

To Breathed's credit, he later owned up to pinching Trudeau, and he soon transcended the label of "gifted imitator" to forge his own path. In the end, his talent was too great to be a mere copy of someone else. In the late Eighties, Bloom County was far funnier and more interesting than Doonesbury, to be honest. Bloom County won the Pulitzer for political cartooning in 1987, which set off howls of protest from traditional political cartoonists. He retired the strip in 1989 (the first of the big-time cartoonists to do so) then morphed it into the Sunday-only Outland and followed that with Opus. He's still out there, doing his thing in books and whatnot.

Lynda Barry. She was attending tiny Evergreen State College, a hippie enclave in Olympia, Washington.  Student editor Matt Groening (yes, the Matt Groening!) first published her crazy cartoons (above) in the school paper. It was he  who named it Ernie Pook's Comeek, without clearing it with her. The title stuck. She graduated in 1979. She calls herself the "grandmother of alt-comix." She's right, because there would be no genre without her. She was the one who inspired me to try my hand at a weekly strip in 1989, ten years after she left college and six years after I did. Personally, I think she'll go down as the single most influential cartoonist since Robert Crumb. Groening achieved more, far more, commercial success, as did others who followed her, but she blazed the trail.

Her first book collection, above, came out in 1981. This collection featured the best of her early college cartoons.  I ran across it at the underground comix shop just north of campus, The Monkey's Retreat. I remember standing there in the store flipping through that book in amazement. They were the punkiest comix I had ever seen. How could someone in their early 20s produce such wildly imaginative work? It's like there was nothing holding her back! No inhibitions, no worries of trying to fit into this or that genre. She just flipped open her head and these incredible images flowed out. And why were my fucking cartoons so boring and lame? It would take me six more years before I managed to, in my own lesser way,  lose my fears and uncork my creativity. But these comix lingered in my brain that whole time, until I finally cut loose.

Lynda and Matt.

Matt Groening. He graduated in 1977, a little before my time in college. And I'm cheating a bit here, because he was a college editor and writer, not a college cartoonist. But he's too important to leave out of this list. After Evergreen State, He moved to LA and, also inspired by Lynda's work, came up with his own comix, which he self-published as a xeroxed mini-comic featuring an early Life in Hell (above). He sold it at a record store where he worked. In 1978, Wet magazine bought the feature and he was on his way to glory. The comix voice of a generation. Maybe two!

There could be plenty others on this list. Some went on the have careers in other fields like animation or illustration. Some were terrific college cartoonists, but gave it all up after graduation, for reasons unknown. Maybe they couldn't handle the tough road it takes to make it. Maybe they found decent work elsewhere. Maybe they just lost interest. There were four or five at Ohio State alone, piled up behind me and champing at the bit for me to graduate and clear off.  

But I'll end with one more.

Jeff Smith. It appeared suddenly in The Lantern at the start of Fall Semester 1982, my last year at Ohio State. A 4-panel comic strip that was a thousand-fold better than the usual amateurish fare that ran on The Lantern comics page. Usually editors ran new cartoons by me for my opinion, but the two that selected Thorn were a pair of fairly "strong willed" types that the J-school produced regularly. The joke was the first class for a J-major was Ego 101. They were dead right about Thorn though. The writing was a tad stiff at first, but the art was incredibly advanced. And he obviously had an entire universe all his own, fully formed in his head. Dude was a prodigy. It was a daily strip (The Lantern published five days a week), so he paced it like one, like the classic adventure strips of the Forties and Fifties. The whole Bone cast of characters was there. Smith says he dreamt up his epic as a little kid. 

The reaction from student readers was, as I recall, mixed. Comix fans loved it. The rest, and they outnumbered us comix dorks 1,000 to one, thought that it was weird, a nerdy strip for the Dungeons & Dragons crowd. Halfway through the first year, Smith turned it into a political strip, like Walt Kelly's Pogo, his greatest inspiration. It was something of a disaster and a firebrand African Studies prof got so worked up over a storyline on racism that he and a small band of his students stormed the newsroom in protest! Smith stayed at The Lantern for a year after I left, then published Thorn in a Columbus comics paper, Hoot. I lost track of him after that and always wondered what happened to such a talented guy. Then one day in the late Eighties, I wandered into a comic book shop and was surprised and delighted to see a copy of the latest issue of Bone, published by his own company. He's been an A-list comix creator ever since.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tank Man

It's one of the enduring images of the late 20th century. A simple act of defiance and courage. Twenty-five years ago, on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese army's deadly crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, a single, unarmed young man stood his ground before a column of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace. He had grocery bags in his hands and was obviously just passing when, on impulse, he made a remarkable stand, very likely a fatal one.

This extraordinary confrontation became an icon of the struggle for freedom around the world. Chinese secret police confiscated most of the film and photos taken at the scene, but a few made it out.

We know him simply as Tank Man. I had this photo pinned above my drawing board for years.

His identity remains a mystery. His name may be Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student. Speculation continues to circulate about Tank Man’s fate. Thousands of Chinese were imprisoned for their involvement in the protests, some of them kept in jail for almost their entire lives. Others– the number is unknown– were executed. Many of the student protestors on the Square were shot in the back of the head. No one has been able to determine whether Tank Man was among them. China continues to officially claim it doesn't know his identity, which is laughable, of course.

Is Tank Man an enduring symbol? Sadly, no. All around the world, when given the choice, totalitarianism is replaced with even more brutal theocracies. As a species, we seem to long for repression, as long as we can choose its form. I fear his sacrifice was for naught. Economic freedom, at least for the elite, came to China, but not political or intellectual freedom. The authorities have effectively erased him, and this image, from collective Chinese thought. Only a few Chinese have ever seen this picture, or know when and where it occurred. As for the "democratic" world, western capitalists didn't hesitate for a second  after Tiananmen Square in their lustful embrace of cheap Chinese labor and lax regulation. China was, and is, their industrial wet dream.

There are rumors that Tank Man was put to death by a firing squad a few months after the protests. China executes more prisoners than the rest of the world combined, although the exact number is a state secret. The only official word of his fate came In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, when former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin said he couldn’t confirm whether the man was alive or not. He said in English, “I think never, never killed.”

Who are we to claim the moral high ground? Here in the US, as we race toward plutocracy, protests (at least from the left) are brutally repressed. We are free to vent online, but if the authorities deem you a true threat, whatever that is, your every move is tracked, your emails and phone calls monitored, or they simply label you a "terrorist" and you disappear into a secret "justice" system, stripped of rights and locked up in solitary. American citizens are executed by drones, without due process or even a trial, or gunned down in the streets by a militarized police force that seldom is restrained or punished for its excesses. Over 2.2 million Americans, 1 in 10, are imprisoned, most for minor drug crimes, many in for-profit supermax prisons. Sociopath billionaires control every level of government and public life, and manipulate gullible fools into doing their bidding. 

Just keep your trap shut, watch Netflix and max out those credit cards. We're the greatest country on earth, remember?

Would you stand up to the tanks?