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Mahna Mah Wha?

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Anyone that has ever watched the Muppet Show is familiar with that catchy little ditty with the refrain “Doo dooooooo doo-doo-doo.” I didn’t even have to play you the audio. You knew it.

I was watching the Muppets the other day for the sake of good ol’ nostalgia (which I used to feel more and miss so I guess these days you would call me nostalgic for nostalgia- nostalgicgic) and I was surprised both by the fact that Mahna Mahna was in the pilot episode and by some subtextual things I had not noticed before- possibly because they exist only in my imagination.

Take a moment below, if you will, to refresh yourself on this timeless classic. Even if you don’t read any of this, who doesn’t love the Muppets?

So… if you’ll allow me to flex my critical muscles a little, I’m about to pretentious out on y’all. Firstly, the skit opens with only the Snowths (that’s what they’re called- google, son!) and their peppy little chorus without a hipster artist in sight. This is what struck me as society, or the audience. They are synchronous, fun, repetitive, catchy, flashy, bright and superficial. They’re a jingle. Cue the introduction of the hipster. When he inserts his Mahna Mahna, it fits neatly in between the chorus. It challenges nothing. It disrupts nothing. It enhances only what is already there. But it is not long before the hipster grows bored with Mahna Mahna and starts to play with what he has already invented and that’s where trouble brews and society turns. He’s stepping on the doo dooooo doo-doo-doo.

The hipster retreats to the safety of mahna mahna and ONLY mahna mahna and tranquility returns. For the Snowths. Hipster is clearly bored and not allowed to deviate from form, he tries new angles and distances, to change up the approach. He does everything he can to make Mahna Mahna fresh again, all without the notice of the Snowths who doo dooooo doo-doo-doo oblivious to the throes of creation that surround them. Finally this boils over until the hipster can no longer contain himself. His scatting becomes louder, more aggressive, more insistent and the retribution is far more pointed. He retreats- beaten, pushed back to the simple mahna mahna which becomes increasingly distant until he is literally phoning it in before he disappears forever.

It’s a chilling indictment of the creative process and the relation of an artist to his audience. It’s an adorable skit about aliens and jazz. It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping. It’s Jim Henson and the Muppets at the pinnacle of their craft.

I wonder how much of what I see is intentional. I wonder how much I Rohrschach’d this through my own creative frustrations. I thought it was the inaugural episode of the Muppets, so how burned out could Jim have been? But it was a full twenty years or so that he had been doing puppetry professionally, starting with the low key black and white Sam and Friends in Baltimore and when I was looking for the clip for this blog entry I found this:

This was Sesame Street in 1969 and the things I thought I was imagining are far more explicit here. The cute but ultimately weird snowths were presaged by the traditional and adorable little girls that are looking for a *nice* song. The singer is no hipster but one of their full on hippie forefathers and far more menacing a figure to middle America. I thought no wonder so many government scrooges wanted to defund Sesame Street. It was out there (and Out There) giving people… ideas.

All I know is that when you feel the need for some joy in your life, you could do worse than to watch some classic era Muppets from the Golden Age of Henson. Here’s another favorite from me to you:

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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.

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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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The Day After

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Catchin’ up, catchin’ up, catchin’ up… Hope you all had a great holiday weekend and that all family get togethers ceased screaming long enough for pie. Pie should bring everyone together and everyone should have at least 3.14 slices of it per get together. Too stuffed to be racist. It’s my message of healing, yo.

As for me, I spent most of the weekend arting. I got quite a few cartoons done for your viewing pleasure. I was consistently terrorized by tub spiders who accommodate me when I want to suffer for my art. I drew these (with a few more in the pipes):

Soon to be merchandized at a web near you

But I also took some time off because it’s a holiday, why not? I saw a lot of things online about DAPL and Black Friday and I get it. The holidays are stressful. It’s not just you. You don’t think Martha Stewart is freaking out right now? You think she doesn’t know that if she doesn’t have those hand carved compostable centerpieces then she’s going to hostess hell? She can smell Gwyneth Paltrow nipping at her heels. She gets it.

I just want to say there’s no wrong way to be thankful and that gratitude doesn’t need to built into a holiday. I was lucky enough to spend the day with my best friend and she’s all kinds of amazing. If you don’t have someone that amazing in your life, maybe get involved with something you’re passionate about because we sorely need amazing people to be amazing together.

Finally, the best reason I can think of to be grateful for the things you have is that it highlights all the things you don’t have. I don’t mean that in an envious my neighbor has a 90 inch tv and all I have is this 60 inch piece of crap way. I mean by contextualizing who we are in the world, it imposes on us humility. By assessing what we’re missing, it defines the path of where we need to go. Gratitude is a way of accepting our imperfections.

I’m grateful for this chance to move forward with you all.

Thankfully,

Martin

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