Sunday, December 29, 2019

All the News That Fits

In 1992, Rolling Stone sent what it called its "National Affairs team" to a cafe in Little Rock, Arkansas to interview the Democratic nominee for president, whom the magazine was also endorsing. Let's see who's at that table in the above picture, going from (literally, but not, politically) right to left.

That's Bill Clinton on the (again, not politically) far right. You may recall he won that election.

To the (literal, but, excepting issues involving gun ownership, not the political) right of Clinton is Hunter S. Thompson. A former newspaper reporter, Thompson first achieved notoriety in 1967 when he wrote a book on the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, a tome that ends with him getting beat up by one of its members. As odd a piece of reportage as that may sound, it was written in conventional journalistic prose. Not so his next notable piece, an article that appeared in the short-lived, far-left Scanlon's Monthly. Not so much about the Kentucky Derby as the drunks in the stands watching the Kentucky Derby, it introduced a new style of writing called "Gonzo journalism." Though Gonzo may have had its antecedents in the satirical journalism of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and H.L. Mencken, Thompson added something new to the genre: he claimed, quite convincingly, to be stoned out of his mind while doing his reporting, resulting in sex-drugs-and-rock and roll blur of fact and fiction. As provocative as all that sounds, the article was as little-read as the magazine it appeared in. But it caught the eye of the editor of the aforementioned Rolling Stone, a magazine dedicated to the then thriving counterculture music scene. Thompson and the impressionist artist-cartoonist who had illustrated his Scanlon's story, Ralph Steadman, was invited to do something for RS. This became perhaps the most famous piece to ever to appear in the magazine, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" , later a book, about a trip Thompson took with his 300-pound Samoan attorney (in reality, a stocky Chicano.) The next year he and Steadman were asked to cover the 1972 presidential election. A wildly successful series of articles, and eventually a best-selling book, focusing mostly on the Democratic primaries and convention, it got Thompson a place on the Rolling Stone masthead as the head of the "National Affairs Desk" (while his alter ego, Raoul Duke, manned the "Sports Desk".) At most magazines that would usually mean news coming out of Washington, but Thompson took a more sweeping view of the term. Take Roxanne Pulitzer's divorce, which he hilariously covered. Affairs, yes. I'm just not sure how national they were. But the 1972 presidential race certainly had national implications, and that's why Thompson was at that table with Bill Clinton, who, in the opinion of some, used Thompson for his own advantage. Like just about every Democratic candidate since 1932, Clinton was characterized by the Republicans as a wild-eyed radical leftist. To prove that he was middle-of-the-road, Clinton had proposed a law enforcement bill that would add 100,000 policemen to American cities. Such a proposal was anathema to Thompson, who had witnessed the beatings of protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and had taken a dim view of law enforcement ever since.  He expressed those concerns to Clinton, who would have none of it, claiming that African-Americans--in his writings, Thompson had often criticized the white power structure--that he had talked to in Little Rock all supported an increase in policemen. Whether they did or not, Clinton had successfully positioned himself to the right of a counterculture hero at a time when the Republican Party was trying to inaccurately paint the Democratic Party as being an arm of that (by then almost nonexistent) counterculture.

In the center of that Little Rock cafe table, we find Rolling Stone's founding publisher and editor Jann Wenner. In the views of many he was also in the center politically by 1992. Starting out as a music critic for Ramparts, a one-time Roman Catholic literary magazine that had been transformed into a New Left muckraking news journal by its one-eyed editor, Warren  Hinckle (who later founded, published, and edited the aforementioned Scanlon's Monthly), Wenner came to the conclusion he was better at critiquing his fellow music critics than critiquing music itself.  With the help of his mentor/father figure, music journalist Ralph Gleason, he started Rolling Stone, which at first glance--it's now 1967--looked like any other underground hippie rag found on the head shop newspaper rack. Yet the prose inside this hippie rag was so good that it soon came to be regarded as a rock music New Yorker. But once the counterculture had waned, many of the best writers had left (often because the mercurial Wenner had fired them), and Wenner had immersed himself socially in the world of celebrity, the magazine after 1980 or so threatened to turn into a rock music People. So maybe all the attention paid to the 1992 campaign was a way of returning the magazine to its 1972 campaign heyday. Now, Wenner may not have been as politically moderate, or, the real meaning behind the charge, as politically conservative, as his critics insisted, for in the Democratic primaries, Rolling Stone had endorsed Jerry Brown. Despite favoring a potentially regressive flat tax devised for him by supply-side economist Arthur Laffer, Brown had basically positioned himself on the Left by refusing any campaign contribution of more than $100, and reminding everybody, usually in the middle of televised debates, of an 800 number they could call if they wanted to donate any spare change to the candidate. Surprisingly, Brown proved to be Clinton's toughest opponent, winning a primary here and there. Clinton clinched the nomination anyway, but it still didn't hurt to have a former Brown supporter like Wenner on his side.

Now, to the left of Wenner, but politically to the right of everyone else, is P.J. O'Rourke. A former writer for the National Lampoon, in the early 1980s he was named head of the Rolling Stone "Foreign Affairs Desk", but he wrote quite frequently about domestic affairs as well. He's been described by himself and just about everyone else as the RS token conservative, and there may be some truth to that. Voters under 25--Rolling Stone's target audience--chose Reagan over Mondale by 2-to-1 in 1984 election, so a little tokenism at the time might have made good business sense, and no conservative was better suited to the magazine than O'Rourke. He's often been compared to Hunter S. Thompson, but I've always found both writers to be quite different. Thompson's prose was mostly stream-of-consciousness played for laughs. Despite some occasional salty language and scatological references, O'Rourke took the more traditional route of a humorist: one-liners. He was less a right-wing Hunter Thompson and more a right-wing Dave Barry. There also was a certain difference of experience between Thompson and O'Rourke that wasn't entirely political but played into their political views. For instance, both Thompson and O'Rourke have admitted to taking drugs (not that such an admission has ever gotten anyone ostracized in the offices of Rolling Stone.) But Thompson's drug-taking was in the here and now. What you read by him was on drugs. O'Rourke's drug-taking, however, was all in the past. As was his radicalism. In his prose, O'Rourke often makes mention of just how steeped he was in the 1960s counterculture during his college days.  But as I suspect was often the case with college students steeped in the 1960s counterculture, he was a Lefty Until Graduation (I'm tempted to call him a LUG, but that acronym has already been taken.) Once out of college, he took a turn to the Right and....I was going to finished that sentence with "never looked back" but he DID look back. And he looked back with that most conservative of desires: nostalgia. In a printed exchange between Thompson and O'Rourke, he admitted he rails against the 1960s because he misses them so much. And that, I think, was, and is, the key to his comedy. If he no longer had any use for the ideology of the counterculture, he could still apply its anarchic spirit to his right-wing punditry, making him a hip, edgy alternative to George Will or William F. Buckley. It also meant he could attract readers across the political spectrum. Such as me. I didn't at all share his political views--I was one voter under 25 who chose Mondale over Reagan in the 1984 election--but I still found O'Rourke funny as hell. So funny that when I found out that he was going to give a talk at a Borders bookstore not far from where I lived, I made a point of being there. He attracted a big crowd, and there was a long line after the talk, but I did get to meet him. He seemed friendly enough. As he signed my book ("To Kirk Bon Appetit! P.J. O'Rourke 9/22/98"), I asked him whatever became of the National Lampoon. Betraying a bit of annoyance, not towards me personally but at the thought of what happened, he explained that some scumbag--his characterization, not mine--had bought the name just so he could make movies with National Lampoon in the title, and published the actual magazine just once a year to keep the copyright fresh (ironically, the book O'Rourke was signing was Eat the Rich, an endorsement of the free enterprise system.) Now, this was 21 years ago. Two right-wing presidencies, several right-wing congresses, and a few right-wing acts of violence later, I'm not so sure I'd want to see him if he showed up at some local bookstore (which at any rate wouldn't be Borders since the whole chain has gone belly up.) I wouldn't find him as funny. All that conservatism is to me now a very old, and very bad, joke. That said, I can't quite bring myself to throw away his book. After all, it has his autograph.

Now we come to the man on the very left. Politically, he also may have been to the left of everyone at that table, even Hunter Thompson (Thompson may have detested conservatism and the middle-of-the-road, but he was also against gun control, indifferent toward government programs, and once expressed admiration for The Fountainhead. I suspect the Left was more of a default position for him.) I'm talking about William Greider, at the time Rolling Stone's National Affairs Editor, who died just four days ago, on Christmas. Of all the writers who went down to Arkansas to see Clinton that day, according to what was printed in the magazine, Greider asked the most questions, and the most detailed questions at that. He came across as the most knowledgeable of the bunch, and wasn't the least bit daunted by Clinton's long, technocratic, policy wonk answers. In the most polite, almost scholarly way as possible, he held Clinton's feet to the fire in a way that   supposedly more formidable opponents like Thompson and O'Rourke were unable to do. But who exactly was this guy? A one-time writer and editor for the Washington Post (where it's said he coined the phrase "Nader's Raiders") Greider was one of the few reporters to befriend Hunter S. Thompson during the 1972 presidential campaign when just about everybody else on the press bus saw him as an underground newspaper interloper. When, in the early 1980s, Jann Wenner went looking for a National Affairs Editor to augment the "National Affairs Desk", Thompson (according to Thompson) suggested Greider, who was eager to leave the mainstream news media behind him. Actually, by that time, Rolling Stone was pretty mainstream itself, but Greider figured he he'd have a bit more freedom, and he did. He wasn't nearly as funny as Thompson or Rourke. Actually, he wasn't funny at all, but he was impassioned and cerebral, politically committed and knowledgeable. You don't often see that combination in one writer. It's usually either emotion OR  intellect, take your pick. But Greider was Spock and McCoy rolled into one, with a little bit of Captain Kirk, too (after all, he was an editor), and that made him, for me, a joy to read. Now I said he was politically committed. What I mean by that is that he was on the Left when the Left had fallen out of favor and remained out of favor until...well, we'll see what the next election brings. But what I most learned from him is just because you don't like what the Right is doing doesn't mean you have to give that proxy for the Left, the Democratic Party, a free pass. Do so and they'll just become a more benign version of the Right. Greider backed up his beliefs with all kinds of facts and figures, but always kept his prose lively. He was a political science professor on a soapbox.

William Greider 1936-2019


Sunday, December 22, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Holiday Hullabaloo Edition)

And I just wanted to point out that the trouble we had on the Santa Claus story was Bill Elder. He had put a sign on the sleigh of Santa Claus, “Just Divorced.” Now how do a bunch of iconoclastic, atheist bastards like us know that Santa Claus is a saint and that he can’t be divorced and that this is going to offend Boston?

--EC Comics publisher William Gaines, reminiscing about the time Panic, a knockoff of the comic book version of Mad (which EC also published) was banned in a certain town in Massachusetts. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

In Memoriam: Danny Aiello 1933-2019

 Danny Aiello seems to have come rather late to acting. After a stint in the army, he served as president of a union representing Grayhound Bus workers in New York City, and then for a while was a bouncer  at Manhattan's famed comedy club The Improv before breaking into the movies playing a character called Horse in 1973's Bang the Drum Slowly, based on Mark Harris well-regarded novel about a dying baseball player (despite the premise, neither the book nor the film is particularly depressing.) Aiello played one of the teammates of the doomed jock (a then-unknown Robert De Niro), and, sorry, I can't recall much about his performance (hey, the doomed jock did have seven other teammates!) I do recall Aiello's performance in his next film, 1974's The Godfather, Part II, even though it lasted just a few seconds, as he ad libbed "Michael Corleone says hello!" (God forbid anyone greets you in such a fashion.) His most notable film after that came in 1980 when he played a racist New York City cop in 1980s Fort Apache, The Bronx, starring Paul Newman. He appeared once again as a cop in Once Upon a Time in America, which also starred De Niro (by now very well-known.) He played Mia Farrow's abusive husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Madonna's disappointed father in the video for "Papa Don't Preach". His career advanced significantly when he played Cher's continuously bewildered fiancee in one of the great latter-day romantic comedies, Moonstruck (1987). Though you can't really blame Cher for eventually dumping him in favor of  one-handed brother Nicolas Cage, you still feel a bit for the big lug anyway, who, good sport that he is, even participates in a toast for the new couple. Toward the end of the 1980s  Aiello played his best-known character, Sal, the proud Italian-American pizzeria owner who can't come to terms with the fact that his Brooklyn neighborhood is no long proudly Italian-American in Spike Lee's masterpiece Do the Right Thing. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the film basically secured Aiello's stardom, though that turned out to be his career peak. He had no real hits afterward, but stayed gainfully employed in film after film toward the end of his days.

Oh, I forgot to mention that in addition to acting, Danny Aiello could sing! 1991's Hudson Hawk justifiably bombed at the box office, but you might want to give it a look some day anyway to see and hear Aiello and Bruce Willis perform "Swinging on a Star". Or just watch this video:

It may not make you forget Bing Crosby's rendition of the same song in Going My Way (1944), but then when was the last time you saw a priest burglarize a museum?

Thursday, December 5, 2019

In Memoriam (Graphic Grandeur Edition)

In case you haven't noticed, I try to make this blog as eclectic as possible. My philosophy is always keep 'em guessing (assuming anyone spends a single second of their spare time on such guesswork.)  I just did a comics-related post, so that means the very next post--the one you're reading now--should have nothing to do with comics. Unfortunately, the Grim Reaper doesn't seem to care all that much  about my keeping this blog eclectic. The past two weeks two very talented cartoonists were taken from us and I don't believe I should ignore that or put a "Quips and Quotations" in between two comic-related posts just to have some semblance of variety (yes, I actually considered doing that. I know, I'm ruthless.) Besides, the two cartoonists themselves were different enough from each other to pass the variety test. One was a mainstream cartoonist, and the other considered underground/alternative. Let's start with the...

Gahan Wilson 1930-2019

...mainstream cartoonist.

After looking at those some of you may be wondering, so where's the mainstream cartoonist? Well, during his 50-year career  Gahan Wilson cartoons regularly appeared in Playboy, The New Yorker, and The National Lampoon, all publications that could be easily purchased without having to go to a head shop. True, Wilson wasn't necessarily in the mainstream of that mainstream. As a practitioner of what's been variously called black humor, sick humor, gallows humor, and grotesque humor, he swam in the same waters as other cartoonist greats as Charles Addams, Don Martin, and Gary Larson. Not that there wasn't a degree of variety among them. Martin, who spent decades at Mad before defecting to Cracked late in his career, had more in common with a Warners Brothers animated cartoon than with Wilson. As for Addams (whose recurring characters in New Yorker single panel cartoons eventually led to The Addams Family in all its television and feature film permutations), Wilson was often compared to him, but I think they were different enough. Addams portrayed the out of the ordinary as, well, out of the ordinary. In other words, there was a "normal" world for all his ghouls and monsters to play off of. If a baby came floating out of the Tunnel of Love or Uncle Fester was seen sharpening the spikes of a fence, a passerby was usually seen looking on in amazement (and maybe stark terror.) Wilson took that tack occasionally, as when the lady doing the jigsaw puzzle notices a piece missing in the corner of the comic panel, but for the most part the "normal" people in his comics went with the macabre flow (maybe because the normal people were pretty macabre-looking themselves.) Look at the guy in the one comic making the pizza. As far as he's concerned, it's just another customer that's walked in. Wilson had most in common with Larson of The Far Side fame. It wasn't just the weird punchline but an entire universe that was in sync with the weird punchline. In Larson's vision, it's not enough to have a giant mailman destroying a city, all the dogs have to join forces to defeat him. That could have been a Gahan Wilson cartoon. In fact, Larson could have written a year full of gags for Wilson, and Wilson could have written a year full of gags for Larson, and the respective fans of each would have thought they came out of the original cartoonists minds. But that doesn't mean the two men were exactly alike, either. The difference comes in the drawing. Not simply that the men had different styles, but the different things they did with those styles. Larson drew ciphers. Seen one old woman, one pudgy kid, one middle-aged man, and one cow, and you've seen them all. And unless somebody saw something that surprised or scared them, you never saw eyes in Larson's cartoons. People either wore pupil-obscuring glasses, or there was a simple parallel line where a pair of eyes should be. A Gahan Wilson cartoon, however, was all about the individuality. You could have a roomful of 20 people (or 20 monsters) and every single one would look different. And you could see the eyes behind the thickest glasses. Nothing was truly standard or stereotypical in a Wilson cartoon. Given that the punchlines were relatively simple, you might wonder if all that uniqueness was necessary. Larson certainly didn't think so. But maybe Wilson was trying to make a larger point. There are no duplicates in nature. Every snowflake and fingerprint is different. Spend enough time with a pair of identical twins, you'll eventually be able to tell them apart. Even Dolly was said to have turned out a bit different from the sheep from which she was cloned. Every animal, vegetable, and mineral is different from every other animal, vegetable, and mineral, even if they're members of the same species or fall under the same classification. This is a scientific truism we sometimes forget, especially when we label something grotesque, and Gahan Wilson was there to gleefully remind us that we ourselves may not be immune from that grotesqueness. 

Here's Gahan Wilson as a guest on David Letterman back in 1982. You'll see he's quite the raconteur: 


 The Algonquin Round Table by way of Stephen King.

Now we come to the underground, or alternative, cartoonist:

Howard Cruse 1944-2019
 Looks like a nice young man, doesn't he? By every account, he was a nice young man., and then a nice middle-aged man, and finally, a nice senior citizen. Yet of the two cartoonists I'm eulogizing today, most of the time he would have been considered the more controversial. Even today, among some people living in what's referred to as "red states", or some people who live in blue states but nonetheless have a red state mindset, he would still be considered controversial. About halfway down the next spate of images, you'll see why:

 You'll remember that I referred to Howard Cruse as a underground/alternative cartoonist. I did so because he has at various times been described as both of those things (as has Robert Crumb.) And some would have that "alternative" is merely a term that has superseded "underground", the same way we now take our prescriptions to a pharmacist rather than an apothecary, or call that big room under a house a basement instead of a cellar. But the terms aren't really as synonymous as all that. Back in the late 1960s, when free speech was still narrowly defined, there was a whiff of illegality about underground comix (yes, that's the proper spelling.) It was underworld as well as underground. If not the aforementioned Crumb or Gilbert Shelton themselves, than the fly-by-night counterculture merchants who sold their works were regularly hauled before judges on obscenity charges. Though I disagree that they should have been, it wasn't wholly without reason. For a few years there, a copy of Raw was as or even more sexually explicit than a movie shown in a theater where the audience was comprised mostly of old men in raincoats. But as the legal prohibitions fell away, and people like Harvey Pekar and Chris Ware less interested in merely telling dirty jokes entered the field, it ceased being underground but was still different enough from Marvel, DC, and King Features to be considered alternative.

So where does that leave Howard Cruse? A versatile artist whose drawing style changed to suit the content and subject matter, he started out in underground comix with a character called  Barefootz, a very cutesily drawn character who walked around barefoot but otherwise wore a suit and tie. Also featured was his oversexed girlfriend Dolly, frustrated artist friend Headrack, and a bunch of darling cockroaches. Barefootz eventually gained a substantial following but what those followers may have not know known was that Cruse was gay. After all, Barefootz was heterosexual, even if he did often resist the advances of the nympho Dolly. Cruse decide to make supporting character Headrack gay, but as fitting a supporting character, chose to make it a sidelight of the comic rather than the main event. In the taboo-breaking world of underground comix, homosexuality was the love that dared speak its name, but only in a whisper. That only reflected society, even counterculture society. To be what is now called LGBTQ back then was to be a member of the underground's underground, and to be an alternative's alternative. But as the Gay Liberation Movement gained momentum, Cruse decided to do comix that spoke more to the self--his self. He produced a new strip for The Advocate titled Wendell, all about a gay young man and his friends. Drawn in a style similar to either an Archie comic or a knockoff of an Archie comic, the humor became especially pungent as the Christian Right-supported Ronald Reagan seized control of  the levers of power, soon followed by the onslaught of AIDS. Undaunted by what at the time seemed (to me at least) as a mortal wound to the Gay Rights Movement, Cruse not only continued writing and drawing the comic, but for underground publisher Dark Horse Comics edited Gay Comix that featured many other LGBTQ cartoonists (including Allison Bechdel, of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home, the latter turned into a Broadway musical.) In 1995, Cruse came out with a graphic novel for alternative comics publisher Paradox Press, an imprint of the mainstream DC comics, titled Stuck Rubber Baby. Drawn in a much more realistic style than Cruse had heretofore been known for, the story dealt with a young white man in the 1960s South named Toland Polk (thought by some to be a stand-in for the Alabama-born Cruse himself) who comes to terms with his emerging homosexuality in the shadow of an emerging Civil Rights Movement. Sales were modest, but Stuck Rubber Baby won all kinds of comics-oriented awards (the usual consolation), including Best Graphic Novel from two of the more prestigious, the Eisners and the Harveys.

In recent years, even decades, gay characters and gay themes have crept into mainstream comics. The latest incarnation of Wonder Woman is lesbian, in one version of Riverdale (who says only superhero comics can have multiple universes?), Archie Andrews gives his life for a gay friend. As far back as 1993, the comic strip For Better or For Worse ran a coming-out-of-the-closet storyline that caused a good deal of controversy (Doonesbury featured gays much earlier than that, but that hardly counts--that strip is always controversial.) All this is to the good, but I don't know that it's any better than good. There may be a tokenism to some of these efforts that's simplistic at best and self-congratulatory at worse (FBOFW's gay story line was carried out with intelligence, but the Archie comic seemed more like a marketing gimmick, and besides, it's usually not straight males who suffer violence at the hands of homophobes.) Just be grateful that the subject is being covered at all, no matter how superficially done, may be the message being sent. If you want a more insightful view into the lives of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, at least as far as comics go, you have to look outside that mainstream. And that's why Howard Cruse remained a significant cartoonist right into his 70s. As the legal prohibitions fall away, LGBTQ may no longer be underground, but it is still different enough to be alternative.

Here's Howard Cruse in a video he made about three years ago, taken from his own YouTube site: 


 I get where he's coming from, but still think he's a bit too hard on himself. He's a raconteur in denial.