Friday, August 31, 2007

It’s a Wonderful Life

Just in time for the centenary of cartoonist Milton Caniff's birth comes his biography, Meanwhile…, by comics historian R.C. Harvey.

As much as I admire Caniff, who created Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, and put the Dragon Lady into the American lexicon, I must admit I was curious as to whether the subject—even one as seminal as Caniff—could sustain a reader's interest in a work of this length; especially since Caniff was by all accounts a modest person who led a charmed life without any real personal demons or secrets, and who was an all-around good guy with few enemies. (After all, conflict is the stuff of drama!)

Well, I should have had more faith. Harvey has artfully woven a compelling and entertaining narrative that is part biography and part literary criticism. All of the stories and anecdotes serve to advance the book's central themes related to the man's personality and career. He also deconstructs many of Caniff's strips and storytelling devices to showcase the cartoonist's artistry.

Caniff was the quintessential all-American: a self-made, over-achieving Horatio Alger who achieved success through grit and hard work. In high school and throughout his college career at Ohio State University, he was an Eagle Scout; a high school and college cheerleader; editor of the yearbook, school newspaper, and humor magazine; a member of men's glee; and of numerous honor societies, including the Sigma Chi fraternity which played an important role in his life. He also was an aspiring actor and performer, and did local theater in college. And he accomplished all this while working nearly full time professionally as a staff artist at a regional newspaper through his entire college career.

This work ethic was ingrained in him at an early age and he astonishingly maintained it throughout his life (yet still he always barely stayed on deadline). As a working artist myself, I must say his dedication to the grind was sobering but inspirational.

(One amusing anecdote in the book has a newspaper editor saying goodbye to Caniff at the end of the day where the cartoonist worked the night shift due to his college schedule; the editor later that evening spotted Caniff on stage performing in a local play, then saw him again the next morning at his drawing board when he came in to work. As this story shows, from the very start, Caniff learned to work at all hours of the day (and night) to meet his deadlines.)

As the book affirms, Caniff indeed led a charmed life. As his career began taking off, he and his lifelong partner and wife, Bunny, both theater buffs, lived for several years in upstate New York, in what is best described as a theater colony. Neighbors and friends included noted journalists, playwright Maxwell Anderson, actors Burgess Meredith and John Houseman, and for a summer, writer John Steinbeck. (Meredith once brought actor Charles Laughton around to show how Caniff had used his likeness for one of his villains, Anthony Sandhurst, in the strip. Laughton was delighted.)

In those heady years, the Caniffs attended private play readings at their neighbors' homes that included Meredith, Ingrid Bergman, and Rex Harrison, and they were regulars in the New York society scene. Caniff's studio often served as a salon of sorts for theater and cartoonist friends, with cocktail parties and poker games often going on at all hours. And through it all, Caniff worked.

Throughout his life, Caniff made the most of every opportunity that came his way. Just as importantly, these opportunities were the direct result of Caniff's hard work, ambition, personal charm, and networking abilities.

Harvey does a terrific job portraying the era and environment in which Caniff worked; in many respects, Caniff's life also encompasses the history of American cartooning and U.S. history. The book is a compelling read, and I'll be saddened when I'm done. It's great to read a story about a nice guy who, for once, finished first.

(Pictured above are the Caniffs at the 1982 San Diego Comic-Con. Photo: Alan Light)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Alex Toth Documentary

In an earlier post, I reviewed the excellent biography of Milton Caniff and wondered whether any artist as devoid of personal demons or dark secrets as Caniff could be an engaging subject (the answer was yes).

On the other side of the coin is the legendary Alex Toth, an "artist's artist" who worked in comics and the animation industry (where he worked on seminal programs like Space Ghost and Jonny Quest), and whose prodigious talent earned the admiration of his peers and continues to influence cartoonists today. Greatly admired and respected (and even beloved), many people sought his friendship despite his reputation as a cantankerous and combative individual. His complex personality and tortured genius makes him the perfect subject for a biography.

Buried in a recent 2-disc DVD release of Space Boy and Dino Boy: The Complete Series is an excellent 80-minute documentary on the cartoonist entitled "Simplicity: The Art and Life of Alex Toth." Previewed at the Comic-Con International: San Diego in July 2007, the documentary has everything one would want for a project focusing on an important figure in comics history: it's polished, professionally done, and has high production values. (As more than one person has noted, it easily would work well as an episode of PBS' American Masters series.) More importantly, it is a wonderful and well-deserved tribute to Toth's legacy and commitment to his art.

The documentary includes extensive interviews with friends and admirers, including Mark Chiarello, John Hancock, Irwin Hasen, Joe Kubert, Bruce Timm, Paul Pope, and others, as well as his four children. The documentary also touches an emotional nerve, particularly since Toth found some measure of peace, contentment and redemption in his final days.

Since I wrote a tribute to Toth at the time of his passing, I won't bother repeating myself here to talk about the man. But anyone with a serious interest in comics would do well to watch the documentary—the DVD already is a bargain, and frankly the documentary itself is worth the price of the DVD. (I purchased the DVD solely for the documentary!)

All I'll say is that I regret that I did not try to pursue knowing the artist more aggressively myself. As noted in my tribute to him, I occasionally sent him comps of my own comics, and always received postcards back. Given my personality, I likely would have been too intimidated to seek him out cold and unsolicited as many did (including some of those interviewed in the documentary), but I certainly would have corresponded with him more frequently if I had known--as the documentary makes clear--that he loved exchanging letters. Regardless, those notes I have from Toth are prized possessions.

It's a bit of a crime (and a puzzle) why this documentary has not received more attention, but I hope this review helps spread the word a bit.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reviews of RHA 10

I was planning to temporarily turn the subject of this blog back to my favorite subject (me of course) for awhile and talk about what I'm currently up to, but those plans got pre-empted by my discovery of a nice review of Rob Hanes Adventures 10, which just appeared in the latest issue of the Comics Buyer's Guide (1634, p. 57).

Reviewer Tony Isabella generously describes my work as "classically inspired, distinctive, and just a terrific example of how solid storytelling can trump comic books published by bigger outfits. Part of me is amazed that the "bigs" haven't recruited him: more of me is pleased that he's free to tell his stories his way."

It's a full page review, with generous samples of my cover and sample art included.

While trying to find the review online, I also discovered that Isabella ran an earlier review of issue 9 back in March, which I missed.

I'm periodically reviewed in the CBG, but it's obviously still a thrill for the work to get some attention.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

All You Need is Love (and Cheap Trick)

Last weekend, I had the privilege to attend a concert at Los Angeles' famed Hollywood Bowl celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' seminal album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The show was headlined by Cheap Trick, who were joined by several special guests, including Amee Mann, Joan Osborn, Ian Ball, and Rob Laufer. Cheap Trick is one of my favorite rock bands from the '80s, and everyone was in fine form. In the second half of the show, the Sgt. Pepper album was performed straight through in its entirety, with orchestral support provided by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

"All You Need is Love" was performed for the encore and I must say it nearly brought me to tears: Thinking of all the crap going on in the world today and watching this '60s anthem to peace being performed live made me think about how simple it would be to solve so many problems if people embodied and personified the song's simple but heartfelt message. How sad for the world that so little has changed since the Summer of Love.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Boys of Summer (part 2)

The other testosterone-heavy show of the summer is ESPN's original mini-series, The Bronx is Burning. Based on the book of the same name, the story chronicles the Yankees' summer 1977 run for its first World Series championship in decades, while its home city, New York, also grappled with the Son of Sam killings, a major blackout and riots, a near-bankruptcy, and a mayoral race.

The centerpiece, of course, is the larger-than-life egos and personalities of the organization, particularly demanding Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin. Also figuring large in the series is Reggie Jackson, who came to the Yankees that season, and catcher Thurmon Munson, who was the team's first captain since Lou Gehrig. Also playing prominent supporting roles in the show are Mickey Rivers, Lou Pinella, and Bucky Dent.

(I should note that, along with other prominent Yanks like Willie Randolph (my favorite) and Christopher Chambliss, this was the Yankee team I grew up with.)

Effectively evoking the era and integrating the show with 1970s-era footage, the series is fun and expansive, and successfully portrays the backstage politics of a high-stakes entertainment and sports franchise. As one reviewer effectively describes it, the show is "an all-male soap opera that would put 'Desperate Housewives' to shame. These men, at the height of their power, are the ultimate drama queens, larger than life, and maybe even bigger than New York."

Oliver Platt as Steinbrenner, John Turturro as Martin, and Erik Jensen as Munson turn in particularly fine performances. Credit particularly must be given to Platt for his outstanding work: given Steinbrenner's status as a minor icon thanks to both his outsize personality and as a recurring character on Seinfeld, I wondered whether it would be possible to successfully capture the man. It's a tribute to Platt's performance that he not only gradually comes to successfully embody the character, but he effectively makes it his own, making you forget you are watching an actor. Platt's performance sneaks up on you, and it's clear he is having a whale of a time.

Perhaps because of this, Steinbrenner surprisingly comes off somewhat more sympathetic than either Martin or Jackson. Though difficult and demanding, he nevertheless was dealing with outsized personalities. Martin obviously had a huge chip on his shoulder and was somewhat immature; while Jackson was a bit of a conceited prima dona. Nevertheless, one must credit the real-life Jackson, Steinbrenner, and other Yankees from the era for appearing extensively in "behind the scenes" interviews that accompany each episode. Given the passage of time and the fact that the events portrayed in the show led to a new Yankee dynasty, perhaps it's all water under the bridge now.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Boys of Summer (part 1)

Thought I'd take a break from all this comics stuff to talk about two new summer television shows. Though both are very different from one another they both are period pieces that are high on the testosterone.

The first is AMC's dramedy, Mad Men. The show is set at the end of the 1950s in a Madison Avenue ad agency (hence, the title of the show), during an era when WASPs were still the majority, and cigarette smoking, sexual harassment, and the two-martini lunch were socially (and legally) acceptable in the work place. The ad and junior execs at the agency portrayed on the show were the Masters of the Universe of their time. The show takes place at the height of the space age, when skinny ties and pomaded hair were in, and the show captures the era well.

The main protagonist is Don Draper, a steely senior ad exec at Sterling Cooper, a topnotch New York City ad agency. He's surrounded by a bevy of ambitious junior execs who they see him as their role model but, in the cutthroat business world, also are after his job. The show follows the professional and personal lives of the various characters on the show and the ad agency—ranging from Scott to the junior execs, to the office secretaries—within the context of the era. All of the secretaries, for example, are subject to the advances of the business executives (whether they are married or not is irrelevant).

Some of the funniest moments in the show come in showing the difference mores of the time. At one party, for example, a pregnant woman is seen smoking and drinking (interestingly, I saw a similar joke in Hairspray as well). In another, a little girl runs around placing "astronaut" with a plastic bag over her entire body without anyone batting an eyelash. And, of course, everyone smokes like a chimney. (Another funny running gag in a couple episodes has involved Republicans trying to recruit Scott for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign who's described as "smart, good looking, and a World War II vet." There also is the obviously gay art director whose nearly every uttered line is a double entendre, yet its clear he does his best to pass as straight.)

Yet the show also has a vague, off-putting Blue Velvet feel to it. This primarily is embodied by the character of Scott, who despite his success projects a sense of ennui and emptiness; his character seems self-aware and conscious of the vacuousness of his job and the era (which I suspect will lead to some reveal about his past at some point in the show).

Actor Jon Hamm, who portrays Scott, does a great job anchoring the show, projecting a real William Holden-like masculine presence that's not often seen among actors today. The other standout on the show is Vincent Kartheiser as the baby-faced Pete Campbell who both idolizes and resents Scott, while also lusting for his job. The most ambitious and alpha-male among the junior execs, his character initially came off as a typical frat-boy exec, yet some interesting facets to his character have emerged that suddenly have made him one of the show's more intriguing personalities.

The show has a quiet force to it, and all of the drama is in the personalities. It's a compelling show and I'm curious to see where it goes in upcoming episodes.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Comic-Con Photos Posted

I've just posted my final report and photogallery for the Comic-Con International in San Diego. Feel free to go straight to the photogallery, though both are clearly linked with each other.