Blog Break: Sad Week
I haven't felt much like blogging. It was a lousy week. The suicide of Hunter S. Thompson started things off on a bummer. His writing blew my mind when I was a youngster and read Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the first time. When I moved to San Francisco I looked forward to picking up the Examiner every week to see his cadaverous mug staring out from atop his column, and find out what kind of bad craziness he was up to now. I read an obit in the Guardian, I think it was, by Ralph Steadman, the illustrator whose work had become inextricably linked with Thompson's ever since they covered the Kentucky Derby together for Sports Illustrated back in the early 70's. I was thinking of blogging something about this unusual writer-illustrator relationship and how rarely you see it outside of comic strips, but then a bombshell dropped.
I learned that my dear friend, Sarah Jewler
, had died. It happened in January, only I didn't find out until Thursday. Sarah was well-known for being the managing editor at New York Magazine for the past 10 years, and before that she held the same position at the Village Voice. But way before that, back in the go-go 1980's, we became close pals when she oversaw the production department, and was my boss, at Manhattan, Inc. Magazine.
Sarah was the first person in publishing to show confidence in my cartoons and their potential for being published. She became my booster, and helped me land my first comic strip gig, at Manhattan, Inc. We got off to a funny start. As my editor, she would ask me questions about the cartoons that had seemingly obvious answers. Like if a character was reacting to something happening visually in a panel she would fail to catch it, and say, "What is he talking about here?"
After a while we discovered that, brilliant as she was, she didn't know how to read comics properly! She would read all of the word balloons first and then go back to look at the pictures, and when made aware of it, she said, "So what? Isn't that the way everybody does it?" I've come to realize over the years that a certain percentage of population suffers from this malady you could call comics-deficit-illiteracy. So, if I had any positive influence on Sarah at all, I did teach her how to read a cartoon.
Sarah pushed me to get my shit together as a cartoonist, and along with my actual editor, Peter Kaplan, challenged and nurtured me in a way that I know was highly unusual. Of course I was temperamental and immature, and didn't appreciate it at the time.
Sarah was funny, opinionated, tough, and, surprisingly ambitious. I say surprisingly because it seemed she was climbing to top of the magazine business without stepping on anybody's toes and without really trying. She had the sweetest demeanor you could imagine that endeared her to everyone she met. She was equally brilliant with ideas and people, which made her a great boss, and, obviously, a great managing editor. You barely knew she was keeping you in line, she had such a soft touch, but she was, and the magazine always got out on time. Sarah was also a party girl who was invited to all the happening events in Manhattan. Once she complained to me, "God, if I have to see Andy Warhol at one more party I'm going to be sick."
After I moved to San Francisco, Sarah and I visited each other a few times and kept in contact as pen pals for many years. She sent me great letters full of clippings of media gossip and other things she found interesting. I've been re-reading them all week (and drinking gallons of alcohol). As she took on more challenges in her career her notes became shorter: "I cut this out for you because I thought you'd like it. No time to write, life is crazy! See ya." Our lives diverged and we lost touch for long periods, but I thought we would be friends forever. I was lucky to know her, she was wonderful, and I'll miss her a lot.
Dangle on NPR
Hey, I was asked this week to be on the NPR show, Marketplace, to play the heavy against a dimwit cartoonist who thinks it's a good idea to give away his daily cartoons to mainstream newspapers for free in exchange for the big jackpot from licensing and merchandising that will come later. This is where I'm sure I will alienate many of you in the blogodrome because I don't think creators should give away their stuff for free when it has value to others who are going to use it. I believe in the old fashioned idea of a fair exchange. I'm not one of those anti-copyright people. I'm pro-copyright, anti-monstrous-corporate-power-that-inverts-creators'-copyright. And it's just a plain issue of self interest. I want to live.
Anyway, it was my first time inside the KQED complex in San Francisco, although I had two different studios in the neighborhood back in the day when mayonaise mist used to drift off of the old Hellman's factory and urban pioneers like me never had to use hair mousse or gel. They gave me the royal treatment. Only thirty minutes waiting on a leather bench in a little hallway off of an atrium-like lobby. I had always heard that KQED squandered all their money on high salaries and luxurious digs rather than producing any local programming, but the facility wasn't that exceptional. But I'm not complaining, I had a lot of fun playing big radio dude for twenty minutes.
In case you miss the show, here were my (not very concise) soundbites:
[What do you think of this new way of marketing cartoons, giving them away for free?]
It's not new. Unfortunately, artists have always been masters at finding ways to give their work away for free. I've heard plenty of ideas like this that involve doing free, speculative work now with the hopes of a big payoff later. It ususally doesn't work.
[How do you feel about what [dimwit] is doing?]
Sympathetic but also outraged.
On one hand, if you want to do daily cartoons for mainstream papers, the cartoon syndicates are the gate keepers. So syndicating independently requires breaking barriers and is very hard. So his is a strategy of desperation in the face of such difficulties and I feel for that.
On the other hand, whenever you diminish the value of your work it hurts you AND everybody else around you. For him to have a competitive advantage at the moment we'll all be worse off in the long run.
The value of any item is based on perception. So to purposely diminish the perception that your cartoons are worth paying for––which will be the message––is not worth the temporary gain.
[What'll happen if this new model catches on and other cartoonists start going this way?]
Publications have always had a clear line between editorial material and advertising. Comics are purchased as editorial content. If cartoons become thinly disguised ads to drive readers to cartoonist's other products, it won't be long before a smart publisher asks,"why are we giving these cartoonists free ad space, especially full-color on Sunday? We should be charging them for it."
[Are you actually saying newspapers will charge cartoonists to run their cartoons?]
It's an extreme possiblity, but hey, from free it's the next logical step for the cost-cutting publisher. How do you negotiate anything when you're already giving it away? And can you imagine how bad such a comics page would be?
From there we talked about all sorts of other stuff about Troubletown, my syndication, my presidency at the Graphic Artists Guild, the California sales tax struggle, my physical fitness regimen, my favorite movies of all time, my time abroad, my sister's struggles with tennis elbow, and a lot of other stuff that will be cut out.
But was I right? Was I smart? Of course I was. I sure hope they do a nice job of cutting it up so I don't like too much of a moron. I'll post the date of the show when I find out.
Afterward I met my wife, Hae Yuon, and we had lunch at Cafe Claude. Wow, my wife alone during the day with Oscar away at daycare. It was a postively sinful rendezvous.
Waiter, There's a Bug in my Blog
As a result of new code pushed last week, a couple of bugs have been introduced which affect a small number of users.
My blog has been uneditable since Sunday, which as we know is like a hundred years in blogosphere time. My hands are sweaty, I'm irritable. Once Blogger has me addicted to this damn thing--BOOM!--they pull the rug out! Friends, readers, first-timers to this blog, please know that the broken links, repetitions,and unedited posts do not reflect the real me. Hopefully the engineers will get around to helping the small number of users like me whose lives are being ruined.
The Joe Wilson's Wife Leak: Was it our Boy?
The blogs are so hot with stories about James Guckert/Jeff Gannon it's a startling phenomenon. Imagine all those investigative reporters doing their leg work while seated in front of their computers and cracking the story open before Peter Jennings could get his first coat of make-up on! You must've gone pretty damn far down the google list if you happened to discover this blog!
The Bush administration's most Nixonesque scandal is the outing of former ambassador, Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA agent. Now it looks like stooge-boy reporter Guckert/Gannon may have had been involved, having posed a question to Wilson about his wife in an interview in October 2003.
The Plame trouble started earlier, however, when Bob Novak, actually one large eyebrow with a small man attached (god's gift to caricaturists), reported it in his column that Wilson's wife was a spy, blowing her cover and putting her, and her contacts, in danger. An investigation
has been underway for months but all the principals have denied having made the leak.
I say this was Nixonesque because it was just so nasty and vindictive, done to punish Wilson for writing about Bush's bogus Saddam-Niger-uranium claim, and because the information was obviously leaked by somebody at the top of the administration and now it's just like Tricky Dick's cover-up. Somebody
Gore Vidal said not too long after it came out that the Valerie Plame affair may be the undoing of the Bush administration, not because it's the worst thing they've done, just because it's the most media-friendly, easy to chew, and, uh, Watergateable.
White House Press Stooge
From the administration that tried to launch the "Office of Strategic Influence" comes the strange story of James Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, the fake journalist who was a welcome stooge at White House press briefings for his bootlicking questions
, disguised as normal unsolicited genuflection by the Press Corps. Bless the bloggers who blew the doors off this story! Apparently the White House went an extra mile to get Guckert into the briefings, bending some of their rules for hard-to-get press passes––and then they took a lot of his "questions" too! I tried to get a press pass to the Republican Convention (tweve months prior)and I wasn't allowed to get any closer than Seventh Avenue!
Guckert, who proclaimed himself "A Voice of the New Media," tearfully resigned
from the astroturf-like Talon news organization after the temperature became too toasty (He claims he's getting death threats from liberals which is sad but probably true).
For those of us who enjoy watching things done badly, you've had to love Jeff Gannon's efforts, which were so obvious they should have even been notice by the "legitimate" news agencies. Here are some of the questions he lobbed at Dubya and his press secretary, Scott McClellan, that started to make people wonder if he might have motives other than pursuing journalistic excellence:
"Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy... You've said you are going to reach out to these people -- how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"
"...Do you see any hypocrisy in the controversy about the President's mention of 9/11 in his ads, when Democratic icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign issued this button, that says, 'Remember Pearl Harbor'?"
" President Bush is obviously the most intelligent Commander-in-Chief we've ever had, the pure victory in Iraq is proof. And with his blend of charm, values, and outstanding physical attributes, he's obviously God's choice to rule the planet. So what do you think is preventing God from striking down Barbara Boxer by spontaneous combustion?"
(The first two were real, but, okay, I made up the last one. You couldn't tell the difference, right?)
Anyway, look what we've had now: real journalists paid to shill for the administration, fake news reports produced by advertising agencies and placed into real TV news shows, and fake journalists planted into press conferences to inject propaganda into the questions! Wow! And that's just the stuff done so badly that we know about it. It looks more and more like Dan Rather and his crew took the bait and swallowed it when they reported on those fake Dubya military records. Why else would anyone pass fake documents to Rather containing very little new information about Dubya's "military service"? It smells like the Office of Strategic Influence at work after all.
Gay Abe in The Nation
The "Babe Lincoln" imbroglio at The Nation magazine
rages on, the latest big controversy in the world of comics! You can get the gist of it from Doug Ireland
, one of the heavyweight journalists taking the lead in condemning the disgusting image, and encouraging people to email Katrina Vanden Heuvel to express their outrage.
The cartoonist, Robert Grossman
, took a riff off of one the funniest stories around, "The Intimate Life of Abraham Lincoln," a book in which the author, C. A. Tripp, strings together historical information to make the case that the Great Emancipator was a closeted gay man. Well, not closeted really, he was open about sleeping with other guys at the Old Soldiers' home, and, according to the author, the label of homosexuality hadn't come into being yet, making the need for widespread closet use unnecessary.
The cartoon is admittedly a bit odd, especially if you analyze it too much, as intellectual Nation readers are of a mind to do. Is "Babe" a cross dresser? If so, why do the breasts look so real? Why the axe? Is he transgender? Is he a post-op transsexual? As a practitioner of cartoonery myself I watch controversies like these with keen interest, knowing that, there but for the grace of Barney Google go I.
Why is it that cartoons stir such powerful and weird reactions? Only Susan Sontag might have been able to explain why Grossman's cartoon registered as hateful instead of campy? One can imagine a swishy Abe Lincoln character coming out in drag on Saturday Night Live, as Rudy Giuliani once did, to great roars of laughter, queer and straight alike. Or he could be lisping and prancing and calling Stephan A Douglas a bitch and scratching him with his nails during one of the famous debates. People would love that.
Jon Stewart or Dave Chappelle could do a fake historical segment called "Pricilla, Presidential Whistle Stop Train of the Frontier," where several famous presidents enjoy campy drag-queen antics aboard a crazy pink train traveling across Antebellum American. In one hilarious scene, Pricilla is taken over at a pass by a band of marauding Cherokees: Lincoln screeches, "Come back here with my wig, you savage! You mess one hair on that $40 Erica and I'll pull your tail feathers so you never forget it!" Damn, I'd win an Emmy for that if only I was a TV writer.
But yet, Grossman's kinda-lame cartoon has brought a state of turmoil to leftist America and made the cartoonist persona non grata anywhere below 23rd Street on the east side in New York City. I don't get it.
I courted controversy with my "Gay Abe" cartoon, above, but didn't get as much as Robert Grossman did with "Babe Lincoln" in the Nation Magazine, featuring Honest Abe as a buxom, bowlegged, bearded lady man. I guess I'm lucky that The Nation never publishes my stuff. The L.A. Weekly picked this one up though, in addition to my regular papers, and so far I'm not deluged with hate mail any more that usual.
What Does the President Mean?
Ever since the coronation in Washington, which I couldn't hear due to my ear infections, the pundits are unraveling spaghetti trying to find meaning in the President's speech. Freedom mentioned thirty times per second, what does it mean? Pundits and journalists! They're eager to infuse meaning into the scraps Bush throws us, and who can blame them. But, as Bush has shown so many times before, what he says in a speech means less than nothing. It's tempting to say that he means the opposite of what he says (healthy forests, clear skies, no child left behind, I refer you to my cartoon
on the subject) but I don't think it would actually prove any more enlightening. One must approach a Bush speech as though he had presented you with a cake-- frosted in frilly, creamy, sugary icing, several inches thick, with cornices and balustrades, so sweet and distracting but not providing any evidence that an actual cake exists beneath. That's the sad value of a Dubya speech, and now we have the State of the Union to look forward to. Will come up with another "Axis of Evil?"
By the way I, attended the Axis of Evil 9-11 State of the Union address three years ago. Well, not actually in person like Ahmed Chalabi, but I was across the street at the Hinkley Hilton watching it in the bar with the delegates of the UAW political "CAP council" Convention, but that's a another story.
Anyway, don't listen to the speech. Mute it. Try to read his eyes. Let them eat cake!
The Blogger's Physical Condition
I read an article in the Sunday Times about a woman who blogged a detailed chronicle of her flu, which had been passed on from her child, who picked it up at preschool. She traced the flu's origins back to the Chinese bird that first had it, mused on the state of her existence, and described the symptoms in excruciating detail. Why the hell? That sounds like someone with too much time on their hands!
See, this is why I'm not a REAL blogger. When I got my double ear infection this week (one infection per ear) I didn't blog at all. I didn't work on any cartoons. I COULDN'T HEAR the innaugural address. I just lay around in a pharmaceutical haze. But, just so you know, this is what it is like: My hearing is down to about 50% so I feel trapped inside a bubble--which reminds me of visiting Europe--only a vague sense of what people around me are talking about. I can hear my pulse clearly, however, like a pile driver pounding inside my skull. Chewing a piece of toast is like series of roadside bombs. The pain, I'm sure, is equivalent to what the prisoners at Guantanamo endure having ball points jammed into their ears. And then there are the auditory hallucinations -- strange far-off snake-charmer music, people walking through the house, snails chewing leaves in the garden...Chilling.
I generally avoid taking antibiotics. People in my family swallow them like candy at the first sign of a scratchy throat, but my approach has always been, like Bush foreign policy, "Bring It On!" Whatever bug doesn't kill me will make my immune system stronger. I don't take flu shots or novacaine either. When I see a tsunami coming I grab a boogie board.
Antibiotics fail now more than they used to. At least I can say anecdotally this is true, and I know from reading that the bacterium of the world have grown stronger, scarier, and more resistant. Hae got a flu-like illness in the fall that wouldn't go away and a throat culture determined it was not viral, so it was, bring on the Oxomoxodoxocillin! Dr. Ross said, "When you pee you'll be killing fish in the bay." So she did. The fish died, but the antibiotic failed! Now I'm swallowing big horse pills, wiping out schools of dolphins, and they seem to have no effect. That's it. We've engineered our own demise. Antibiotics will cause the fall of the American Empire, like lead pipe did for the Romans! Gee, there's probably even a way to interpret antibiotics into the Book of Revelations.