The 2004 Festival of Cartoon Art in a Series of Snapshots
by Bruce Chrislip
January 12, 2005
This year's guest speaker list included Nicole Hollander (Sylvia), Tom Batiuk (Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft), Al Feldstein (former long-time editor of Mad magazine), Michelle Urry (cartoon editor of Playboy), Charles Brownstein (Director of Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), author Bob Levin (The Pirates and the Mouse), Jay Lynch (Nard & Pat), Art Spiegelman (Maus & In The Shadow of No Towers), Lalo Alcaraz (La Cucaracha), history professor Cindy McCreery and three editorial cartoonists: Joel Pett, Ann Telnaes and Tom Tomorrow.
The Festival is held every three years under the auspices of the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library, a compendium of all sorts of cartooning publications (including comic books), comic strips and cartoon original art. The Research Library grew out of an initial donation of original artwork and manuscripts by Ohio State alumnus Milton Caniff many years ago. During this year's Festival an interesting collection of fan mail and original art for Caniff's two comic strips Terry and The Pirates and Steve Canyon was on display at the Cartoon Research Library's gallery.
Nicole Hollander, cartoonist of the Sylvia comic strip, shared many amusing stories and anecdotes concerning the strip and some of the reactions it receives from its readers. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's staff wrote her a note requesting a recent strip original. According to Hollander, "I didn't want to send it. I shut them up by requesting money."
Some readers are bothered by the fact that Sylvia smokes they keep sending Hollander notes to get Sylvia to stop. Another fan objected to a comic strip that made fun of the rock musician Prince. The fan said, "I think he's more man than you can handle." Another disgruntled fan remarked, "Reading your strip is like talking to a leper." Oops.
The theme of this year's cartoon festival was censorship (hence the subtitle of "Deletions, Omissions and Erasures.") Hollander noted that, "A newspaper can cancel your comic strip and the syndicate won't tell you about it. The only way I ever find out is if a friend that reads that particular newspaper tells me."
Tom Batiuk started off by saying, "I don't really do this kind of thing anymore (giving speeches about cartooning)." But then Festival organizer Lucy Shelton Caswell asked him if he believed in free speech. "Absolutely! I believe in free speech!!" Batiuk replied. "That's great," said Caswell, "because we want you to give one at Ohio State!"
The title of Batiuk's speech was "Ten Things That Need to be Censored" which was a witty way to comment about things that bug him about the comic strip business:
Number 10: Gary Trudeau—"Because I'm envious of him."
Number 9: Any kind of change—because newspaper readers don't like it. (Batiuk suffered a minor injury and was unable to draw Funky Winkerbean for a while so he enlisted another cartoonist to take over while he recovered. During this time he got nothing but complaints from readers who objected to the change in art style even though the substitute artist was comic book fan favorite John Byrne).
Number 8: Anything that isn't a gag. Readers only want funny stuff in their comics.
Number 7: The word "sucks."
Number 6: Anything that approaches an adult Point of View. —Comic strips are ONLY supposed to be kid's stuff.
Number 5: Anything that makes the target audience think.
Number 4: What you (the cartoonist) think.
Number 3: Religion—don't touch it (or irate readers will quote scripture at you).
Number 2: Politics—stay away (see Religion above).
Number 1: The truth.
Even though the above recital might seem to be the rant of a bitter cartoonist, Batiuk's speech was quite funny—and even good-natured. But the point is that there are so many critical readers out there that he felt it didn't leave him much leeway as a cartoonist.
Playboy Cartoon Editor Michelle Urry
Urry emphasized the importance of Playboy to the cartoon crowd by stating, "I buy approximately a million dollars worth of cartoons a year!" Besides her editorial duties at Playboy, Urry also serves as cartoon editor or consultant on other magazines like Good Housekeeping, The Cousteau Society, Modern Maturity and even an unnamed religious magazine. They all have their slants and restrictions. Modern Maturity doesn't want any cartoons about politics, money or sex. "The Cousteau Society doesn't like cartoons that make fun of 'tree huggers' or Smokey the Bear."
Urry showed many slides of gag cartoons from Playboy to show off the wide range of subject matter and approaches. Besides the expected sexy cartoons, many had political or social commentary.
Al Feldstein was the editor of Mad Magazine for over three decades. He told the festival audience about his beginnings in the comic book business and the career path that led to Mad. In the late 1940s, Bill Gaines became publisher of EC Comics after his father Max died in a boating accident. Being new, Gaines followed the current business model—flood the market with whatever type of comic book was popular at the moment.
Feldstein joined EC to produce a teenage comic called Going Steady with Peggy—modeled after the Archie comic books. It ceased publication when the teenage comic fad ended.
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created a sensation with the first romance comic books. They became the best selling titles on the market. Fieldstein started drawing romance comics for EC. When sales dropped, Gaines looked for the next trend.
One day, Al said to Bill, "This is really dumb. You're publishing what sells. When the trend dies, you die. Stop being an imitator, be an innovator."
Together, they hatched the idea of producing a line of horror comic books. Then Gaines suggested they try science fiction. Feldstein had never read any but took to the genre quickly after reading a pile of sci fi pulp magazines.
Mad comics came about because Harvey Kurtzman needed another title to work on to increase his income. EC Comics had a brief run due to anti-comic book sentiment in the mid-1950s, chiefly stirred up by a book called Seduction of the Innocent. "I suddenly discovered I was one of the prime seducers," said Al.
The Comic Book Code came in, restricting what could be published. The anti-comics fervor put most comic book companies and artists out of business. EC Comics cancelled many titles and was struggling to survive. Mad switched from comic book to magazine. Al Feldstein lost his job in comic books and was wondering what to do next.
As fate would have it, a contract dispute between Mad publisher Gaines and Mad editor Kurtzman led to Kurtzman leaving and Fieldstein being invited back to EC. A profit-sharing agreement at Mad proved very lucrative for Editor Fieldstein over the years. After decades as cheif Mad-Man, he retired to Montana to paint western landscapes.
The Milton Caniff Tour
During lunch break on the first day of the Cartoon Festival (Friday October 15), I hiked across the somewhat wintry campus of Ohio State University to view an interesting art exhibit at the Cartoon Research Library gallery. It was called "Drawing Fire: Controversial Comics by Milton Caniff" and featured a combination of Terry and the Pirates / Steve Canyon original art along with fan letters and slam letters pertaining to the comic strips on display.
When character Raven Sherman died in a Terry and the Pirates strip, Caniff devoted a brief sequence to showing her burial. Some readers sent letters of condolences to the syndicate, often addressed to another character in the comic strip! But other readers criticized Caniff for showing the death of a main character in a comic strip. Some even accused him of hurting the moral fiber of the nation's youth.
Letters pertaining to other comic strips in the exhibit were from readers so outraged that they threatened to cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper while demanding that Caniff send a written apology to them for the "offense." From a 2005 vantage point, most of the so-called offensive comic strips seem pretty tame. However, I was glad that Caniff collected and saved the letters from his readers over the years. It showed that the life of a successful cartoonist is not all india ink and zip-a-tone.
Underground cartoonist Jay Lynch gave a highly entertaining talk on Saturday morning. I spent quite a bit of time with Lynch over the weekend and found him to be not only a droll wit but also quite a historian of American humor.
He started his talk by showing slides of favorite comics. "Here's Bunky from Snuffy Smith. Baby or midget—we don't know!" He showed the cover of Dandy Comics #5, a funny animal title from the 1940s drawn by Vince Fago. "I remember first looking at it while drinking out of a baby bottle."
Lynch considered E.C. horror comics an early high point. "Like watching a good B-movie," he said. But Lynch went even further in his praise by stating, "All modern culture was started or influenced by 225 Lafayette Avenue." (That was the home of both E.C. Comics and Paul Krassner's satirical mag The Realist.)
In the early 1960s, Jay Lynch and his cartooning cohorts were creating material for small press satire fanzines with names like Smudge and Wild. Many of these same cartoonists would go on to create the underground comix of the counterculture era.
Displaying perfect comic timing, Lynch showed a wacky example of underground cartooning: "Here's a slide of Gilbert Shelton's Set My Chickens Free!" After the briefest of pauses, Lynch continued, "LSD did play a role in these cartoons." This line brought down the house.
Summing up the influence of Harvey Kurtzman and Mad, Jay Lynch offered the following observation, "It's almost like Mad was an underground comic and we just continued it."
contact: Bruce Chrislip