“It’s easy to become a writer, but it’s hard to stay a writer.” –Kate Wilhelm
Recently the attention of the comics internet was grabbed by Mike Dawson’s cri de coeur about the limited financial returns of a now mature career in cartooning, and the response by Savage Critic Abhay Khosla, arguing that Dawson had failed to take the measures required to succeed in the current era. I thought some of Khosla’s points quite valid, others less so. For instance, I can nearly guarantee you that Dawson wasn’t the one who decided what his book was going to sell for. What struck me as dubious about Khosla’s argument is the implication that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
I was reminded of another debate from some years back where both sides appeared to be correct. Mark Waid, then an executive with Boom! Studios, was making a presentation on the future of digital delivery of comics, arguing that the new world required offering a certain amount of material for free, and Sergio Aragones spoke up to question why he should be subjected to such an indignity. It’s as if you were living on Atlantis, which was known to be sinking, and the only known alternative was Shit Volcano Island, where no one wants to live because the schools are supposed to be lousy. If you are not quite so young in fact as you are at heart, you might ask just how fast Atlantis is sinking really. Waid (who may not have been the one who decided on the business plan he was discussing) on the other hand had to live with the reality that Atlantis was not sinking but developing a shit volcano, which would have to be lived with.
The problem with the Panglossian outlook is that it moralizes evolutionary forces. You would think from the way some speak of it that the purpose of evolution were to prove the unworthiness of the dinosaur, that if he had only had the foresight to become some sort of weasel he would have survived. A god if such a thing existed could pull strings and do favors to promote his opinions. Under natural selection that which lives, lives and that which dies, dies. If the comics ecosystem requires that the cartoonist be an entrepreneur then those cartoonists who aren’t entrepreneurs will be excluded.
To all appearances we have entered into an environment in which its never been easier to disseminate your work and its never been more difficult to make a buck from it. It’s easy to see the disappearance of means by which cartoonists used to make their living and it’s difficult to see what’s going to replace them. I couldn’t say that things are going to come out all right in the end, I just don’t see how. I can’t really see casting your bread upon the waters as a business plan. And its not just a matter of digital media and that sort of thing either. For example, for 20 years or so a cartoonist used to be able to publish his work in a magazine, being paid as he did it, and then publish it as a book and get paid for it again. Somewhere along the line, however, people began to realize that everything was going to come out as a book, so they decided to start waiting for the book.
What militates against Mike Dawson’s position is his complaint that there are too many cartoonists. If we had truly entered into an era that was hostile to cartoonists there ought to be fewer of them. The gatekeepers have been removed and the magazine has an infinite number of pages. Cartooning is an art form that can get away without gatekeepers better than others. At a glance a page of bad writing looks a lot like a page of good writing, while you can tell if a cartoonist has talent or not at a glance. What amazes me is not the volume of bad work that is disseminated but the high quality of work people are giving away. If we grant that more people have the opportunity to create comics and be read, the question in my mind is, how long? I could easily see cartooning as something you do when you’re young and have to give up when you feel the need to make a decent living. I think of how long it took Dan Clowes to fully learn how to play his instrument, which I don’t think was until Ghost World. Things we had thought of as the breakthroughs before that turned out to be stages along the way.
But I often fear that I have become an unreliable narrator. I often look around at the state of the culture and feel as though the world entered into its Post-Me Phase, which will get you down. Objectively, however, I realize if you were someone who loved hip-hop and video games, a type of person who is about as uncommon as hydrogen, you might well see yourself as someone who has just lived through a golden age, in which great artists emerged, topped themselves and then topped themselves again. If you are of advancing age — and I mean, advancing like the German army — you are prone to the temptation of sour grapes. You take the good things that have emerged for granted and itch for the things that have passed away like a phantom limb. I don’t know how old Abhay Khosla is, but one reason a younger person might bristle at an older person’s grousing is a rooting interest in his own time. No one wants to think he’s living a lousy life.
Perusing Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics I realized that though I’ve known most of these people by name for most of my life, aside from a few I’d had no idea what they looked like. Which is to say that the book is not merely a display of Friedman’s particular prowess, but a significant work of comics history. So what do heroes of the comics look like? They look like psychiatrists (Al Jaffee, Lev Gleason, Bob Montana, Jack Kamen). They look like the Amazing Kreskin about to uncork a screwy one (Jack Kirby, Lev Gleason, Al Williamson). They look like used car salesmen (Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Bob Kane). They look like half-forgotten 19th Century presidents (Harry “A” Chesler). They look like sages (Dick Sprang, Russ Heath). They look like shnooks (Siegel and Shuster, Sheldon Mayer). They look like whiskey priests (Mort Meskin). They look like Buddha (William M. Gaines). They look Jewish (mostly). They look like they were trying to smile and it came out as a sneer (Bill Everett, John Severin). They look like matinee idols (Mac Raboy, Dick Briefer, Dan Barry, John Stanley, Gil Kane, Matt Baker, Frank Frazetta, Jesse Marsh). They look, specifically, like James Garner (Woody Gelman). They look like wise old judges in 30s movie musicals (Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson). They look like 30s gangsters (Charles Biro). They look like plainclothes coppers in 30s gangster pictures (Bill Finger, George Roussos, William Moulton Marston). They look like semi-hip squad room detectives in 70s cop shows (Al Feldstein). They look like they should be riding the range (Boody Rogers, Graham Ingels). They look like standup comedians of an earlier day (Jerry Iger, Irwin Hasen, Al Hollingsworth). They look like they’re Graziano’s trainer (Carl Burgos). They look like bookies, trying to lay off a few bets on a prize fight that’s started to smell (Steve Ditko). They look like Bukowski (Joe Kubert). They look like Frankie Valli (Howard Nostrand). They look like Lamont Cranston, in his later years (Jack Oleck). They look like “Whoa Nelly!” Dick Lane (L. B. Cole). They look like the Elders of the Kiwanis Club (John Goldwater, Joe Simon, Alfred Harvey). They look like they’re in another business altogether (Martin Goodman). They look like executive secretaries a week before their retirement party (Lily Renee, Marie Severin). They look retired (M. C. Gaines, Bob Powell, Jack Davis, George Evans, Al Hartley). They look like pixies (Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, Ogden Whitney). They look a little crazy (Carmine Infantino, Jack Cole, Otto Messmer, Alex Toth). They look surprisingly normal, and you’re surprised (Basil Wolverton, George Carlson). They look surprisingly normal, and you’re not surprised (Wayne Boring). They look strangely satisfied with life (Creig Flessel, Jerry Robinson, Lou Fine, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Will Elder, Mort Drucker). They look haunted (Johnny Craig, Harvey Kurtzman, Bernie Krigstein). They look desperate (Sid Shores, Wally Wood). They look finally at peace (Frederic Wertham).
Which is not to say, needless to say, that this is what any of them necessarily were. Friedman’s preference for drawing them as old as possible skews the sample. What it illustrates overall is that people who came of age in the 1930s modeled themselves after what they saw in the movies. If you gathered a similar gallery of the last rather than the first 20-odd years of comic books, I bet you’d find they mostly try to look like rock stars.
In Masterful Marks Monte Beauchamp sets out to tell the stories of 18 notable and influential figures in cartooning history and proceeds to do no more than a third of them justice. If you’re looking for a series of thin Wikipedia entries illustrated by cartoonists who, while talented enough in their own right, have little or nothing to impart about the subjects they’ve been assigned, then this is the book for you. I don’t think any more than seven out of seventeen manage to evoke either the style of their subjects or the times they lived in. I can only imagine it was conceived as a primer for the utterly uninitiated. The contents page presumes a reader who must be informed that Charles Addams was “Creator of the Addams Family” or that Walt Disney was the “Creator of Mickey Mouse” or that Dr. Seuss was the “Celebrated Creator of Children’s Picture Books.”
The subjects themselves are quite intelligently chosen to show a wide swath of cartoon art: Siegel-and-Shuster, Jack Kirby, Addams, Winsor McCay, Charles M. Schulz, Hergé, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Hirschfeld, Disney, Lynd Ward, Rudolphe Töpffer, Edward Gorey, Hugh Hefner, Osamu Tezuka and Dr. Seuss. On the plus side, the novice is being introduced to the right people. On the minus, the biographies are mostly in the style of Ralph Edwards reciting the triumphs and heartaches of a victim of This is Your Life, particularly when the story is told in the second person. Even when Ryan Heshka depicts Siegel and Shuster’s career as a ’30s storybook gone sour, or when Owen Smith’s quasi-Regionalist reflects not only the times but the political atmosphere Lynd Ward lived in, the pedestrian thud of the narration drags it down.
Most of the contributors depict their subjects in their personal styles which might be perfectly lovely in their own right but whose effect is disassociation. The most extreme is Larry Day’s chapter on Walt Disney in which an old French bird reads Monte Beauchamp’s script to a young French bird (they wear berets) across a French landscape. Now, you can see the problem here. Depict Disney himself and you run the risk of a right of publicity suit; depict anything that is Disney’s or is of Disney and you face the ire of the corporation that bears his name. So, fine, you think safety requires that your route be completely abstract, wouldn’t you at least depict a countryside that evokes the Midwestern barnyard locale of his early cartoons?
So it’s the exceptions that will have to make this a worthwhile purchase. A lot of you will be buying it simply because it contains an extended strip Drew Friedman on Robert Crumb; I would. “R. Crumb and Me” is practically a Heroes of the Comics about one hero. He gives us Crumb at each and every stage of his life, and since many of his photo sources are familiar you get to see what Friedman brings out of a photo reference. He shows not only the milestones of Crumb’s career but their impact on a reader who is inspired by him and then is edited by him.
Peter Kuper and Denis Kitchen, depicting Harvey Kurtzman and Dr. Seuss respectively, demonstrate in passing how one cartoonist influences another, and how the younger cartoonists turns what he learns to different purposes. Kuper more than any other contributor manages to work the subject’s own imagery into the story of his life, and captures Kurtzman’s manic energy. Like much of the book Kitchen’s Seuss chapter gets bogged down in then-he-did-this, but at least it all seems to happen in a kind of Seuss-land. The fracturing of facts has always been Arnold Roth’s stock in trade, and in Al Hirschfeld he drew a subject who really had a quite interesting life away from the drawing board. Frank Stack has always seemed to have one foot in an earlier century, so he’s a natural to portray Rudolphe Toppfler, the 19th century pioneer of sequential art.
Masterful Marks falls short because unlike statesmen or astronauts or criminals the events of artists’ lives are almost always less interesting than what they create. An effective artist’s biography has to be to some extent a critical biography. Masterful Marks merely reminds us that a cartoonist is an ink-stained wretch chained to the drawing board, upon which he plots his escape.