December 01, 2005


Candorville: Thank God for Culture Clash. By Darrin Bell. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Prickly City. By Scott Stantis. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Now Who Do We Blame? By Tom Toles. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     The greatest political comic strip of modern times was Walt Kelly’s Pogo.  Reliably but gently liberal, it unceasingly mocked, among others, the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, after whose downfall an editor said he had seen enough of the character Simple J. Malarkey (representing McCarthy) and would cancel the strip if Kelly ever drew him again.  Here is the sort of class Kelly had: he drew a final strip filled with the bombastic speech of McCarthy/Malarkey, using the speech balloons to cover the character’s face.  It was obvious from the words alone who the character was, yet Kelly never drew him, adhering to the letter of the editor’s demand.

     There is none of that classiness about the best-known political strip running today, G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury.  It too is reliably liberal, but there is a stridency and self-righteousness to it that can make it faintly unpleasant to read – despite the superb art, highly complex story lines and well-defined characters.

     It is time for new political voices in comic strips, such as Darrin Bell’s in Candorville and Scott Stantis’ in Prickly City.  Bell is the artist for the Rudy Park strip, written by Theron Heir and also somewhat political in orientation.  Candorville is all Bell’s and almost all politics.  It is a multicultural strip that rises above (or simply ignores) political correctness.  The three main characters have been friends since childhood: writer Lemont Brown, the closest to a voice of the cartoonist; Clyde or “C-Dog,” determined to be thuggish and ignore his inner emotionalism; and Susan Garcia, an up-and-coming corporate type who stays closely in touch with her roots.  There are some easy targets here, as in a strip about “Democrublican” and “Republicrats” and their willingness to compromise principles to gain power.  But most of the strips are more subtle.  In one, various people look at each other: Muslim, Latino, black (Clyde), white, and finally Sioux, and all of them share the same thought balloon: “Worthless immigrant.  I wish he’d go back where he came from.”  In another, two people argue with interchangeable rhetoric, then start saying identical things, such as, “I’m not attacking you, you’re attacking me.”  In a sequence, Susan’s company does multicultural training, bungling it badly; afterwards, Susan asks Lemont, “What could possibly be worse than their trying to understand my culture and humiliating me in the process?”  And Lemont replies, “Not trying at all.”  This is a genuinely thoughtful strip, with well-designed characters – and it is wonderfully funny, to boot.

     Prickly City is something of a rarity: a strip with a conservative viewpoint.  There have been others, such as Bruce Tinsley’s Mallard Fillmore, but Scott Stantis’ strip has heart as well as attitude.  Prickly City is about the relationship between a politically conservative young girl named Carmen (who happens to be black) and a liberal named Winslow (who happens to be a coyote).  The two live in a desert landscape vaguely reminiscent of George Herriman’s in the classic Krazy Kat.  Some of the political points, such as ones about feeding tubes related to the Terry Schiavo case, are so dogmatic that they interfere with the character development (Stantis is, after all, editorial cartoonist for the Birmingham News in Alabama).  But most of the dialogue is genuinely amusing.  Winslow identifies himself as a “carbo-American” to explain why he stole Carmen’s Ho-Hos.  Winslow parodies attack ads by taping Carmen speaking and twisting everything she says.  After Carmen beats Winslow at chess, he demands his pieces be allowed a place at the table because half the pieces in the game don’t like the outcome.  There are also pointed attacks on the absurdities of film propagandist Michael Moore, recently retired CBS anchorman Dan Rather, and others.  And some strips make important points, as when Carmen refuses to choose a woman from her school’s “required list” for a report, picks Ann Coulter instead, and is sent to the principal, where she says, “I was just hoping for a little balance.”  His reply: “How can you get a balanced education if we give you opposing views?”  Think about it – this strip does.

     Somewhat less successful than the other books – call it (+++) – is Now Who Do We Blame? This is not a strip but a collection of Tom Toles’ editorial cartoons from The Washington Post.  Toles is successor to but no replacement for the irreplaceable Herblock, whose art and tastefulness readers could always admire even if they did not share his politics.  Toles is more stridently liberal than The Post’s own editorial page, where his cartoons appear; and as in any collection of timely cartoons, this one does not wear particularly well.  Many of the cartoons parody President Bush, shown as a moronic-looking elflike character with ears nearly on top of his head.  Bush plants an environmentalist for Earth Day, supervises flying monkeys while wearing a Wicked Witch of the West costume, sinks into the quicksand of Iraq while insisting he will not make any decisions, and so on.  Even when funny, these cartoons quickly become tiresome.  The best cartoons here are more social than political, such as a Rubik’s Food Pyramid to show how confusing government nutrition recommendations are.  The worst are tasteless misuses of the murderous 9/11 attacks, such as one showing the Capitol blown up, with smoke labeled “the deficit” drifting out, and the caption, “The 20th Hijacker Arrives.”  Toles could use some maturity if he wants his messages to come across more effectively.  Better grammar wouldn’t hurt, either: the correct title for this book would be Now Whom Do We Blame?

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