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The Life of Riley and Calvinist Discipline

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It’s a defunct comic about a precocious young child, plagued by an adult world that doesn’t understand him. It’s about his wisecracking friend in a sea of inane suburban banality. It’s about searching out chinks in the armor of implacable authority.

I’m talking, of course, about the Boondocks.

Actually, I’m talking about Calvin and Hobbes.

Actually factually, I’m talking about both.

I was looking through some of my favorite old collections when I realized how deeply these two comics talked about the same issues from a similar but very different perspective. Calvin lives a life of sheltered indulgence he never really appreciates. Considering the amount of… well, criminal mischief he has perpetrated, his parents never really actually provide much in the way of punishment for him. Sure he gets yelled at a lot, but really he’s subjected to even less discipline than Bart Simpson.

I believe this comes from the ‘phoning it in’ section of the parenting book. I think the first caveman uttered it when his kid said he was too young to catch his own wildebeest. I got the sense in this strip that Calvin’s dad enjoyed the turnabout of handing off what his father handed off to him. I don’t know if this is universal to all fathers, but since it’s my dad’s birthday today, I will extend the benefit of the doubt and assume this really was something he told me For My Own Good.

Contrast this to the world of Huey Freeman. Huey, like Calvin, lives in the suburbs. Unlike Calvin, he was born in the city (Chicago, if you were wondering- you know, that war zone two steps away from military intervention [at least Fox news tells me so]) before relocating with his brother and grandfather. It’s not established where the boys’ parents are, but given Huey’s radicalism and Riley’s unabashed devotion to thug life, it’s a safe bet they’re nowhere good.

I don’t get the sense of helplessness from Huey’s grandfather that I get from Calvin’s dad. His boys get up to mischief. A lot of mischief. Though not, I would argue, the amount of criminal mischief that Calvin does. I mean, he accidentally stole his parents’ car. But granddad Robert is having none of it. He’ll fill those boys days with punishments and chores, not for any sense of discipline (if you ask him), but because sometimes a brother gotta watch his shows in peace. Lip of course does not equal peace.

Huey is not a boy who is going to protest at the unfairness of anything. Partially because he’s more clever than that, but mostly because he already knows this, and he’s probably come to that realization more honestly than by an early bedtime. But maybe it’s not fair to contrast Calvin to Huey. Calvin is six years old and Huey is a more worldly ten. Anyone who spends time around young kids can tell you there are a million years between six and ten. I don’t even mean that figuratively. Kids change time. Seriously, Einstein did a whole field of study on it. Google it.

A more just comparison might be made between Calvin and younger brother Riley. At eight years old, Riley has more of the exuberance and abandon that Calvin has. He hasn’t entered the cynical world of double digit life. While the biggest challenge of Calvin’s social life is Moe the bully and protecting his toys from Moe’s chubby fingers, Riley has the entire culture of toxic masculinity working against him. Calvin will do his best to disappear into the landscape. Riley will dominate it. Calvin is trying to escape the notice of a system that expects too much from him. Riley is trying to crush a system that expects too little. I think the difference is best exemplified in how they approach Santa Claus.

These are basically the same letter. Calvin writes his for therapeutic purposes and dares not send it for fear of offending the powers that be. Riley doesn’t consider not sending his for a second because he knows he is the powers that be. Different sides, same coin.

The sad irony of these strips is that Calvin probably turned out ok. My bet is that he squeaked through school to the relief of his ineffectual parents and made his way into college where he continued his criminal shenanigans where he was perpetually indulged with a boys will be boys attitude, As for Riley and Huey, I assume that Huey’s FBI file and Riley’s gangstalicious lifestyle led Grandpa to an earlyish grave. Huey calls Riley when he can at the supermax he ended up in, but it’s not as often as he would like because he travels from one undisclosed location to another while living under the anarchy street artist moniker ‘Wakanda’.

I love both of these strips and they inspired me to want to be able to communicate visually and concisely. Superficially, they may not have much in common but if I had a chance to re-christen them, I would call them White Privilege and Black Pride. I only hope that Huey and Calvin have crossed paths out there somewhere in after comics land, I think they would be friends.

Things in Squares

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Things in Squares is a genius name for a comic. What could be more elegant, more elegantly true? For decades, the panel comic has used the things in squares format in the development of a common language widely understood by all of comic reading society.

But Things in Squares, by Cale, refuses to be limited by anything so mundane as reality or common language. In the very first comic the character, nameless faceless every guy, refuses to be constrained by his square and quite literally burns it to the ground. You know from the start you’re in for something very special, and the creator very modestly titles the post lame joke.

Over the course of the series, every man makes incredible journeys through time and space as the result of a a very singular creative mind. He also takes his dogs for walks and goes to the pharmacy and those strips are also the result of a singular creative mind. Everything Cale, the artist, does imbues his work with a soft, dreamy magical realist style that reminds me of Nemo in Slumberland conceptually if not stylistically. The style I find more reminiscent of some animated series. The line weight and colors seem Clerks the Animated Series. The soft, curvy shapes like the Powerpuff Girls.

Cale also in the Things in Squares site publishes the Once I Dreamed comics which are a great social collaboration. His readers share with him their literal sleepy time dreams and he illustrates them in his signature style. The more surreal the dream, the better it works, again just like Nemo in Slumberland.

Beyond the actual comic, the artist does some lovely things at his site. If you’re an aspiring web cartoonist (like, say, me), there are worse places online to make yourself at home. He has a blog where he clearly outlines the formulae that have lead to his online success and does his best to help you duplicate those steps. In the best tradition of artists, he is both constantly pushing forward and paying backward.

If you’re having one of those days and in need of a laugh, I recommend this as a place to go to get that microburst to get you through the next five minutes. Even the dark humor will make you feel ever so much lighter.

The Antiquated Art of Satire

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When I was a kid I was addicted to Mad magazine. Which tells you something about my age. We used to have to get our satire at the newsstand before getting that paper copy of the Onion at the student center. I loved everything about Mad. I loved the writing, the irreverence, the detail- but what I loved most of all was the art. I was especially enamored of Mort Drucker, whose insanely intricate cross hatched masterpieces were right up there with anything John Tenniel ever did for Lewis Carrol’s books and it was every bit as iconographic.

Mad doesn’t hold the same audience it used to anymore. I think it’s at about a tenth of the size it was at the height of its circulation. The Onion is more known as a website than a newspaper, the same way Cracked is known for its online presence instead of the Mad magazine knockoff I grew up with back in the day. Bill Watterson took Calvin and Hobbes out at the height of their dominance at least in part due to the declining influence of the funny pages. Aaron McGruder left the Boondocks after a few years for television pastures on animation late night.

But there is one place where I think the best of cartoonists are still practicing their art at the height of their game. No, I’m not talking about the Family Circus, though I will admit that circular frame is pretty groundbreaking for a feature so square. I’m talking about the political cartoonists. These are the guys you see on the editorial page that aren’t Doonesbury and don’t have names even though they have recurring characters. There it is just smack dab on the page, that’s ART.

These troops in the trenches come in at varying skill levels just like any other genre of cartooning out there (and if you have thoughts to share on my level- be kind. I’m new) and the one I’ve been most entranced by is David Horsey. He has been cartooning longer than I’ve been alive- and it shows. His art is every bit as detailed and exaggerated as Mort Drucker’s work and the nuance and insight with which he illustrates make for immediate poignancy. He’s a columnist too (and a darned good one), but the words are almost unnecessary as his pictures are worth about 3156 words.

In the works of Horsey I see the best of both worlds. He is an obvious master with a pen and his lines are confident, flowing and varied. I don’t know his method for color, but it’s obviously done digitally and right skillfully as well. It’s easy in these rapidly changing times to try to cling to rules that no longer make sense, but I admire artists like Horsey who see the evolution of art and hang ten on that wave, holding for dear life. That’s inspirational.

I look forward to David Horsey and other eagle eyed Americans looking out for our interests for the next four years (more or less). I hope someday to be within telescope distance of these great satirists someday. In the meantime, I leave you with this cartoon which I swear is political. Think about it.

Mission Statements

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It’s my intention that I use this forum to write about some of the great comics that artists out there are doing, and I totally intend to do that. Today, however, I want to talk a bit more abstractly about comic art and humor as a tradition and where I hope to fit in that narrative.

What brings this introspection on? Is it the fact that my yearly life crisis approaches in the form of my birthday and I start freaking out about my legacy? Maybe. But it’s pretty impertinent of you to ask, and I’m instead going to focus on the news. Most specifically, Charlie Hebdo. Earlier this week the artist El Rhazoui stated she would be leaving the French satire magazine as she feels the weekly has gone soft on Islamist extremism. If this is the case, I for one cannot blame them as it has now been two years since Hebdo’s offices were stormed by two Algerian brothers who killed twelve in response to inflammatory cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

I’m not a faithful follower of Charlie Hebdo and my near complete lack of fluency in French means any subtleties are lost in the translation, yet I don’t know that I could see myself becoming a fan. What I have looked at doesn’t seem to contain any subtleties. Over the top colors, hectic art and what seems to me to be a healthy dose of self righteousness gives me a distaste for what little work I’ve seen. Satire, like so many other arts, is a deadly serious business to the French. Contrast this to the torch bearer of American satire, which is known for taking nothing seriously, least of all Mad itself.

Which prompts the question (boy there are a lot of those today): Is satire what I aim for as an artist? Maybe. A little. I aim to share with you, my dozens of loyal readers, those things that strike me funny. Sure there is some rooting in the real world, but my head has never spent a whole lot of time there. I hope to be more Charles Addams or Gary Larson than El Rhazoui or Mort Drucker. Of course, anyone who tries to make a joke can always draw the ire of someone somewhere. Gary Larson once drew a cartoon about Jane Goodall that was hated by all her fans and ironically loved by Jane Goodall. I see this as the opposite of the situation where Mr. Sulu was made a gay character in the new Star Trek universe to “honor” George Takei against his wishes.

If I have any end goal in my mind of my artistic hopes and dreams, it would be to do at least one comic that equals Garry Trudeau at his prime. During the Vietnam War, Doonesbury approached the most serious subjects known to man with such a gentle good humor that the strip never actually achieved having a villain. How could you not have a soft spot in your heart for Phred the Terrorist? The same essential harmlessness was embodied in Bloom County, though the emotions, in comparison to Doonesbury, went up to 11.

What do I want to do as a cartoonist? I want to be able to talk about things I think are weird or funny or stupid or interesting and, regardless of your feelings on the joke, I want you to think Martin is a nice guy. I might have a few issues to work out, but as far as I can see, I’m in the best place to do it.

What do some of you look for in a comic strip? Drop in and I’ll give you a figurative penny for your thoughts.

Garfield Plus Martin

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I don’t know what the weather has been like in your neck of the woods, but here in Utah we have snow and cold and more snow and cold. It’s been a good week to crawl in bed and stay there. So I did. It made me think of the snow days of yore. The days where just looking out the window made me go ick and I would curl up with a pile of comics. The start of my love affair, if you will.

I was addicted in those heady days, to Garfield. Maybe because as a housebound minor those books were the easiest to get my hands on. I had a huge stack of them you would always get from Scholastic book fairs. It was from Garfield that I learned the art of a snappy retort, along with the efforts of one Mr. Al Jaffee. It was from my parents that I (reeeeally) eventually learned to put a sock in it.

For my whole childhood, I thought I was Garfield. The no nonsense Monday hating cat who was continually bested by life but too jaded and lazy to really care. It wasn’t until I saw the work of Dan Walsh that I realized that I had never known how much Jon Arbuckle lived in my head. That was the magic of the world of Garfield Minus Garfield, a comic strip starring Jon Arbuckle and only Jon Arbuckle.

It would be easy to dismiss Walsh’s efforts as not art as the legwork is initially produced by Garfield author Jim Davis, but that overlooks the genius of Walsh’s brilliant theme as well as his attention to detail in the seamless removal of all traces of the feisty feline. By removing the titular character from such a succinct medium, he produces a surreal and existential view of life you might expect from a Tom Stoppard or Samuel Beckett.

In this digital age, it’s hard to draw the line between what is art and what is appropriation. For every Walsh with a supportive backing of a muse like Davis, there’s a Bill Watterson that has to look at a bootleg Calvin peeing on a pickup every time he leaves the house. For every thousand boring memes there’s a James Fridman who surprises us all with a view on a world where symbolism and literalism collide with hilarious results. For a while I toyed with the idea of a Garfield Plus Garfield where I replaced the main characters in strips like the Boondocks, Bloom County etc. with Garfield so there was something of a post modern ratiocination going on, but I decided that sounded like an awful lot of work. Maybe someday in the future when I’m spread less thin.

In the meantime, if you have a snow day in your future and you’re looking for something good to read, you could do worse than to curl up on the couch with Garfield Minus Garfield.

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