Friday, June 27, 2008

Obituaries and other disasters

The death of George Carlin has stirred up conversation on the topic of obituary cartoons, on Daryl Cagle's blog, at the Daily Cartoonist, at the convention of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists and at rec.arts.comic.strips, as well as some other places.

Obituary cartoons seem to bring out the worst in cartoonists -- cheap, maudlin dreck that they ought to be ashamed of, but which readers seem to love. How bad does it get? How bad can it get? When Jim Henson died, someone drew weeping Muppets. Can it get worse than that? Of course it can, and has, and probably will again.

But obituary cartoons don't have to stink. Consider this entry by Thomas Nast, upon the death of James Garfield. (Click on any of these cartoons to see larger versions.)

In order to appreciate this cartoon, you have to first recognize the setting: Garfield had lingered for nearly three months after being shot, and the country was on death watch. In those days before CNN, the world didn't come to a screeching halt. For one thing, Washington was out there someplace -- while the Civil War had begun the process of creating national awareness, people still identified primarily with their own backyards because they didn't have a lot of access to other places. But the news came once a day, and once a day, the President was still dying, until the day came when he was dead.

The other factor is that Nast's symbol here is Columbia, the tall, powerful warrior goddess who is normally seen armed, in helmet with shield, protecting the nation. Here, she is a woman, unarmed and consumed with grief. Compare this with John Tenniel's cartoon on the same topic, in which the goddess remains powerful and the message is far more unfocused and sentimental.

In Tenniel's cartoon, some undefined woman, presumably the American citizenry, is sad and must be comforted by Columbia. In Nast's, the mighty goddess herself has been brought to her knees.

Nearly 75 years later, cartoonists got another shot at the same topic, and the most famous cartoon to emerge became one of the most famous cartoons in the genre. Bill Mauldin had wrapped up work for the week in Chicago and gone to a press luncheon of some sort. But before the speaker could start, an announcement was made of the events in Dallas and that roomful of journalists cleared out. In the days before cell phones and the like, the level of chaos must have been high, but Mauldin got hold of an editor and asked if he could get something in. The answer was yes, but hurry. This cartoon was drawn and inked in a fury of inspiration and the Sun-Times, a tabloid, splashed it across the back of the Extra, where sports would have gone in a regular edition.

When the bundles were dropped off at the newsstands, the newsies took one look at the cartoon and flipped the bundles, selling them off the cartoon on the back rather than the headlines on the front. The paper disappeared.

What vaults Mauldin's cartoon above the average weeper is the triple he managed to bang out -- He's got a murdered president mourning another murdered president. And, given Lincoln's reputation for compassion, he has a murdered man mourning another murdered man. But he could have shown Lincoln, stovepipe hat in his hand, standing in a graveyard. By using the statue from the Lincoln Memorial, he invokes the American people mourning their president.

Jackie Kennedy asked for the original, which is now in the Kennedy Library.

You can't demand that cartoonists be inspired at this level; you can't demand that cartoonists come up to the level of Nast and Mauldin anyway. It's like going to a production of "Hamlet" and saying, well, Olivier did it better. However, both cartoons give readers that emotional catharsis they want without being cheap and obvious. It's not too much to ask cartoonists to go beyond, "Gosh, we sure are sad!"

What is it fair to ask for?

When the Columbia exploded, there were any number of cartoonists who depicted "Seven New Stars in Heaven." But here's an example that shows the peril of trying to be sensitive without really thinking things through.

The Pearly Gates are a decidedly Christian symbol, and much of the criticism of the George Carlin cartoons has been based on the militant atheism he made central to his act, and the sense that it is inappropriate to show him in a Christian afterlife situation -- though several cartoonists used the opportunity to have God criticizing his use of profanity, which seems odd in light of how often cartoonists defend the First Amendment.

In this case, the cartoonist uses the Christian symbol of the Pearly Gates, but apparently realized that one of the astronauts was Jewish, so depicted one of those "Seven New Stars" as a Mogen David. This would be sensitive if (a) it didn't tend to single the guy out as "not one of us" and (b) if Jews believed in a conscious afterlife at all similar to the Christian version.

And one of the astronauts on the Columbia was Hindu. Now whatcha gonna draw, bud? A cow? Once the cartoonist recognized the religious disconnect, he needed to abandon the cliche and find something else.

Meanwhile, David Horsey, more often praised for his draftsmanship than for his insight, knocked this one out of the park. Drawing in Seattle, the issue of heat tiles and mechanical failure was no abstraction for his readers, and this cartoon bypasses the weeping and gets down to the nitty-gritty. (Note: I am not sure how soon after the Columbia disaster this cartoon appeared, and it may not be entirely fair to compare it to those done on tight deadline in the wake of the crash. But it's still a good contrast between mawkish sentiment and making a coherent point.)

When the World Trade Center fell, more than 30 professional cartoonists came up with nothing better than the Statue of Liberty weeping. I haven't bothered to post an example because they were all interchangable and pointless. Nobody needed to be told that America was sad. There had to be a better way, and Clay Bennett nailed it. Unlike Mauldin's seamless marriage of President, man and national symbol, this blend requires some manipulation, but the graphics work so well that the artificiality is deliberate without being jarring or unnatural. This cartoon simply works.

Meanwhile, across the sea, Peter Schrank came up with this obvious but excellent cartoon. Drawing on the familiar classic makes the reference accessible to most readers, and the substitution of Wall Street for the bridge works graphically. By drawing the globe as the screaming man, Schrank reflects the universal horror of that moment, a time -- however subsequently squandered -- when the world stood beside the United States in its revulsion for the events of September 11.

I think when you see how well cartoons can respond to death, loss and disaster, it makes the cheap weepers and Pearly Gates cliches that much more insulting to the reader and depressing for fans of the genre.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dig the beauty

"Ask a toad what beauty is? He will answer you that it is his toad wife with two great round eyes issuing from her little head, a wide, flat mouth,
a yellow belly, a brown back." -- Voltaire

This fellow wandered by the office the other day and I shot a picture of him before taking him down to the wetlands at the edge of the property. He was pretty big -- when I picked him up, he filled my hand and hung out at each edge.

But looking at the picture, I wonder about the phrase "ugly as a toad." (You might do well to click on the picture to see the detail.)

Look, first, at those eyes, at the gold in his irises. Do your eyes have those highlights?

And check out the beads, the colored bits at the end of his little nubbins. And look at the number of little nubbins on his body. Ponder the complexity of it all.

And see the soft, pinkish ends of his fingers. If only he could understand numbers, and wealth, think of the safes he could pick with those sensitive fingertips!

Okay, yes, it looks like he walked through a cobweb at some point. But consider the level of detail in this little beast.

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

Voltaire contends that beauty is subjective. Fair enough. But this is a beautiful little animal.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Great Literature, Part Deux

Rather than respond to the comments on the last post within the comments section, I thought I'd start a new entry and let Dave Kellett have the riposte. The comic above (click on it for a larger, more readable version) is actually the third of a pretty funny series, which starts here, but the strip is on my daily diet, and many other people's as well. I've been a fan of Dave's from back in his days as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, when he did a strip called "The Four Food Groups of the Apocalypse," which I have actually referenced here. He's now one of a handful of people making a living from a web strip rather than trying to deal with syndicates and the print medium.

When I was in college, we were supposed to read "Moby Dick" and this was exactly my reaction. With "War and Peace," I felt that I was missing something because I didn't have time to just sit down and really read it, but with Moby Dick, I gave it an honest shot and then bought the Cliff Notes.

Moby Dick is one of the books that people say they wish had gone on forever, and, while I felt it had, I decided to go back after college and give it another look. Same effect as above. By contrast, I went back and read "War and Peace" and, as noted in the previous post, am now reading it again. What I didn't mention then is that this is about my sixth or seventh time through. It's an amazing book and I live with the characters, who are the most three-dimensional I've met in all of literature.

But, while I've re-read "Two Years Before The Mast" several times, I haven't been able to get through Moby Dick once.

Another pair of books I couldn't read even after college were "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Don Quixote," the former (despite having read and enjoyed several other Dostoevsky novels) because it was too much like being back in school, like a prolonged and somewhat tedious lecture, and the latter because the picaresque nature made it seem repetitive to me ... like a Bugs Bunny cartoon where the character gets flattened by an anvil and then jumps up and has another adventure with no apparent bad effects.

Your mileage may vary, and thank goodness for that, because it's one of the advantages of books over television. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Danielle Steele outsells Tolstoy, Melville, Dana and Dostoevsky combined, but you can still find their books despite their poor ratings.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

So far, it just hasn't been a Miserable summer

(I was telling my son Gabe that I'm about through reading the new translation of "War and Peace" and enjoying it very much ... but given the constraints on my time, I can only read two or three chapters a night, so I don't know how many of the insights I'm gaining are from a more dynamic translation and how many come from the slower pace. It reminded me of this column I wrote back in August of 1994.)

Boy, I hope I don't run into Victor Hugo at the grocery store. I've had his book for over a year and I still haven't gotten around to reading it.

I really meant to. I read the first chapter and really liked the tone and the flow and all, but I thought I'd better put it aside until summer. A big book like that, I wanted to be able to really settle in with it.

Yeah, well, summer's half over and I haven't even picked it up. Sorry, Vic, but you know how it goes.

It has been years since summer meant weeks of uninterrupted reading time, but it still seems like the right time to settle in with that book you've been meaning to read. Some of my favorite books are things I read over the summer: "Catch-22," "Tale of Two Cities," "The Once and Future King," "The Possessed."

The summer before last was the summer of "Anna Karenina," which turned out to be something of a disappointment, but a disappointing meal at the Tolstoy Restaurant is still pretty good grub.

I suspect the reason I haven't gotten to "Les Miserables" is because I set it out as a task, albeit one I was looking forward to, and I've been putting it off to read small things that I figured I could dash through first.

For instance, there was an odd little book I picked up at my friend Terry's used bookstore in Star Lake, which chronicles the experiences of a political reporter in Albany during the Gilded Age. The trials of Fantine and Cosette and Jean Valjean may be great literature, but a first-hand, ringside account of the break-up of the Tweed Ring and how the federal election of 1876 was stolen is pretty fascinating stuff, too.

I value the classics, but I love finding out-of-print books that were published once and then never again. I dropped into the Cornerstone during Mayor's Cup and came across a French-language instructional book written in 1917 for American soldiers headed overseas. Now, in addition to "Where is the library?" and "In the morning, Papa takes us to the Louvre Museum," I can also say, "Fix bayonets" and "Did they support the attack?"

With a little practice, I'll be able to say, "Let's go to the library and attack Papa with bayonets."

Used bookstores are a treasure chest of obscure and wonderful things. I once found a Civil War memoir, replete with eyewitness accounts of almost no action at all, since the author's regiment was on the peninsula with McClelland, and thus spent most of its time waiting for the moment to be just right, which, as Civil War buffs know, it never quite was.

I wonder if McClelland ever got around to reading "Les Miserables?"

The all-time coolest book I ever found in a used bookstore, however, was a 19th-century guidebook for young, India-bound wives of British civil servants and military officers. It's a how-to that tells what servants you will need to hire, the duties of each and how much you should pay them. It gives recipes not only for European-style dishes made with ingredients found in India, but also for household cleansers and medical remedies.

And it contains important housekeeping tips for those on the subcontinent: For example, you must put the legs of your wooden furniture in saucers of water and have your servants check the saucers daily, because the white ants will make a quick meal of unprotected end tables, and, when going up into the hills to escape the heat of summer, you should pack your dishes on the mules and let the camels carry the less fragile household goods.

If you are wondering why on earth I need to know not to pack the good china on the camels, you don't get it. Truth be told, the world is full of wonderful bits of knowledge that nobody really needs. For that matter, does anybody really need flowers or roller coasters or ice cream?

Anyway, the summer is half over and I haven't even transferred "Les Miserables" from the living room bookcase to the bedside table. There's no way I'm going to get through it before Labor Day.

I wonder what they do to you if you get caught reading out of season?

This column first appeared August 7, 1994, in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.