Thursday, March 31, 2011

You spell Gaddafi, I spell Khadafy, you spell Qaddhafi …

The more things change …

Twenty-five years ago this week, The U.S. was preparing to war with Libyan leader Khadafy …

Hmm. Not entirely sure the message I was trying to send. Police dog to the World, the United States,
might be sniffing around a number of countries, but then found motivation with the crazy Libyan leader.

These cartoons were for The Hanford Sentinel, when I was just getting started on what an editorial cartoon should be.

Three days before the cartoon above, U.S. and Libyan aircraft had clashed in the Gulf of Sidra on Libya's coast, and four Libyan attack boats were sunk. This was another in a simmering sequence of tense clashes with Libya, tied to terrorist attacks against U.S. and British targets. In April, terrorists bombed a Berlin nightclub, killing a U.S. serviceman and injuring some 50 more among 200 people hurt in the blast. The United States unleashed Operation El Dorado Canyon, bombing Libyan targets.

(Before we go on, could the United Nations or someone organize a standardization of Khadafy's name? Virtually every other world leader's name is spelled the same across the news media. Why not his? It's not just his last name, sometimes spelled with the prefix al-, as in al-Qaddafi; his first name has almost as many variations, including Moammar and Muammar . Maybe this is a part of the chronic problem: He's not getting the world's tea cards asking him please to stop brutalizing his people.)

Again, my meaning is unclear, though the name, Tommy Tonkin, alludes to the United States' penchant for
manufacturing provocations for war or violent "nation building" (as in Gulf of Tonkin incident). Though not alone in this practice, the United States is especially good at it. The same with warring in the name of idealistic principles when in truth it's almost always for business. The new "no-fly zone" looks and feels like more of the same.
President Obama just went to the airwaves to explain this generation's bombing of Libya, dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn (which Jon Stewart described as a Yes album, Stephen Colbert called a Carnival Cruise ship, and Lily Tomlin said was a bad name for a drag queen.)

As with his predecessors, President Obama has aspired to irony. I give him no argument about stopping a brutal leader from harming his own people, but as with the others who have made the same justification for war, I say, "Yes, but …" As in "Yes, but the people of Yemen are suffering in a similar fashion. Why aren't we stopping its government? Or Syria's? Why aren't we bombing hell out of those who massacre in Congo, Somalia and, for that matter, Mexico?"

It can't be just because we can't stand to see a government harm its own people, because quite clearly we can. It would be refreshing if our leader said, "Look, we can't intervene in Yemen because we have a military base there and we've got it pretty good with the government . Libya provides oil with fairly close access to our European allies, and we don't really have anything cozy going on with Mr. Khadafy, or however you spell it." Or something like that.

It would be depressing, but I'd prefer it to the same stirring rhetoric that belies its true aim. Then again, what would have cartoonists have to draw?

President Obama says action against Libya should eventually force Khadafy out because "history is not on his side." The guy's been in power for 40-some years; I think he's got the history racket worked out.

Get ready for another long, painful entrenchment.
Lord, I was wordy in the early days. That's a lot of ink to point out that the U.S. was practically alone
in this attack and President Reagan was less than skillful in getting help
. One difference this time — apparently — is that France and Britain are taking more of a lead.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been

My children's school required massive volunteerism from parents.

Unskilled at most useful things, I contributed art, which usually meant art directing the themed auction and fashion show fundraisers (more on that down the line),  but once in a while meant creating honest-to-goodness design and illustration.

This was for a series of small posters and fliers tipped into the school and church bulletin (that is, volunteers opened each bulletin and put a flier in; madness), all color copied (good ol' Kinkos, which I have discovered in sadness has become the decidedly unimaginative FedEx Office) on tabloid paper and trimmed to get the full bleed (color right up to the edge, for you civilians).

The nice part of volunteer work is that you can't be fired, and the beneficiary usually (but not always; more on that down the line too) accepts whatever you have to offer.

I didn't have to give the school a bunch of different concepts, as I would with a paying client, and this idea came to me all in a rush, so it was just a matter of following through on the concept.

Pink, white and black, the perfect combination.

The icons of a bygone era practically drew themselves. That I could reduce them to shape and silhouette was more than half the fun.

The car was the most difficult to render because I had so many references to work with. Meaning, which car? I went with the Bel-Air, which has always drawn me, for some reason, and I have drawn it, or a variation thereof, several times over time (more on that later as well.)

Still, the poodle skirt poster is my favorite, just for the crop and the quiet loudness of it. It means more things to more people, I guess (people remember Chuck and Elvis and Marilyn and cars, but not all like them; the poodle skirt evokes a more personal memory for many; I think that my mom would have liked this image especially, for the time and place it would have transported her.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Editorial cartoons: My humble bumbling beginning

Headwaters: As far as forensic historians can tell, this is my first editorial cartoon.
A rather anemic start (Boo, drunk driving! is my bold message), especially since my mission was to
help raise the profession's standards. But I got better. Then worse again. Then insipid and derivative.
Then occasionally … OK. I'll show it all in good time, if you've the stomach for it.

One lonely Saturday in Hanford more than a quarter-century ago, I had my James Fenimore Cooper moment.

Cooper, you may remember from 10th grade literature class, was arguably America's first great novelist. "The Last of the Mohicans" and "The Leatherstocking Tales," resulted, so the story is told, from Cooper having read a bad novel and deciding he could do better.

I had a similar feeling that Saturday in Hanford, though writ small. It was my turn among reporters to work the Saturday shift at The Hanford Sentinel, and as with most Saturdays, Kings County residents were kind enough not to make news over the weekend. After visiting the jail to look over the police blotter, with sad families waiting around me in the lobby to visit their inmate relatives, and checking the hospitals for any updates, Saturday reporters had little to do but rewrite news releases and get ahead on assignments. Of course, I goofed off instead, mostly by reading all the newspapers The Sentinel subscribed to, particularly the comics and editorial cartoons.

I remember being fed up with one editorial cartoon in particular — one bad cartoon too many — in an out-of-town paper. I don't remember the content, but it was what I call a "knock-knock" editorial cartoon, that makes innocuous fun, nothing more, out of a current event, eliciting a giggle, if that. Its intent is to make readers smile without hurting their feelings, and most important to help the syndicate that sells the cartoon remain in the good graces of the newspaper that subscribes.

By their nature, syndicates water down the power of editorial cartoons, because they sell to as many news outlets as they can, liberal, conservative, libertarian, what have you. Some syndicates represent a stable of cartoonists from many points on the political spectrum, but the opinions of even those tend to carve a straight, safe line between all those political viewpoints, hence the "knock-knock" silly editorial cartoons, which you still see today in most newspapers.

Which is just plain wrong. Good editorial cartoons should kick ass and take names, with a punch that even the best editorial can't match for its instantaneous message.

Boss Tweed, the mastermind of New York's Tammany Hall political machine more than a century ago, fumed at cartoonist Thomas Nast's depictions of his shenanigans.
"I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles," he said. "My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures."
Good editorial cartoons should, as Finley Peter Dunne said, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They should spark change and change minds. Few do so today, and on that short list Pat Oliphant is the undisputed king. Ted Rall jabs mightily and means it. Tom Toles is consistently potent. Jeff Danziger does damage. After that, the cartoonist landscape is so-so. And cartoonists are becoming fewer, sadly.

I decided I could do better.

So for the next seven years or so, starting on that Saturday, I embarked on an odyssey of becoming an editorial cartoonist and knocking at least one other cartoonist down a peg. In the process I churned out more than my share of the kind of bad cartoons I hated so much, but gradually sharpened and poisoned my brush to the the point that every once in rare moment I came close to making an impact.

I did not achieve the bottom line, to become a staff  cartoonist somewhere, but I had a heady time trying. From time to time, I'll share my cartoons here, good and bad and botched, whether it be the anniversary of an event, the reminder of what I or the world was doing at a certain time, or just because I feel like it. Fair warning.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Artsy craftsy: New work

A new opportunity to work with designer Lisa Park arose recently, an emergency illustration for an upcoming home and garden tour in a Sacramento neighborhood (other work here, here and here).

The trick was to depict an actual Curtis Park home, modify its landscape, give the overall feel an Arts and Crafts look (which in graphic design and illustration features thick lines almost overwhelming detail, turning shapes into simplified icons; contemporary illustrator and printer David Lance Goines regularly employs the Arts and Crafts look), and get it done fast.

My first thought was uncomfortable: Shingles and leaves in a short time. Drawing as I do, right-handed with a mouse (I'm left-handed), I recoiled at the thought of all the leaves and minute lines representing the roof.
Luckily, all Lisa needed was line art. She would apply the color, type and overall design.

The outside shapes would be easy by comparison. (My son has since lent me his electronic tablet, and once I get a pen to replace his that was lost, I'll have a learning curve ahead of me, but will be grateful to speed the process one day soon.) The devil would indeed be in the details.

This is the postcard. The package includes a poster, which required me to make the elements as separate entities so that Lisa could move them to fit different dimensions.

This is the line art as I composed it, for my own entertainment. You can see how the elements differ from the postcard:
The azalea-like flowers above I had designed to nestle in the slope of the roof, but making them independent allowed Lisa to move them for the design.

Ultimately, the illustration doesn't fully embody the Arts and Crafts look; the home's style fits that movement, but the depiction of if is more architectural than ornamental. Only the azaleas above and undulant grasses below, I think, truly bespeak the Arts and Craft look.

Ironically, if I had worked less hard on the project, thickening outlines and tossing out details (and having time to sweat out which details to lose) the finished piece would have carried the Arts and Crafts theme more globally. A fun challenge, though.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm not who I say I am

Now with authentic yellow teeth!
(Tetracycline, not tobacco, is to blame …)

In time for St. Patrick's Day, I'm ready to reveal that Shawn Turner is an alias, a ruse, a cover. I'm really Michael Kearney, a 185-year-old (or 184? I'm starting to forget) dry-goods clerk from Kilfenora, County Clare, Ireland, by way of Boston and a long boat ride. Don't ask.

When I'm not drawing pictures as this Turner fella (which was harder to learn than I thought), I haunt my adopted home, the original center of Sacramento. A luckless layabout I am (which is to say, not much of a stretch in portraying Shawn Turner), spending my days escaping my boss Mrs. Polhemus and her ceaseless chores by spiriting unsuspecting Old Sacramento visitors through my old haunts in the city's underground.

The Old Sacramento Underground is a misnomer, but the truth more than makes up for it. It's not so much underground as it is where the city of Sacramento used to be, before the stubborn landed gentry literally lifted the city — buildings, streets and all — out of the alarmingly regular floodwaters of the Sacramento and American rivers. (Who knew that if you built a city right on the low bank of the state's major river, and around the corner from a wild mountain river, that the rivers would overflow their banks during heavy winter rains? Quite a surprise, that.) It was lift the city or move, and the Powers that Were were not about to abandon the nexus of unprecedented trade that resulted from the 1849 gold rush, and continued as the Big Four built a railroad to cross the Sierra. (Fun-like fact: "gold rush" was not applied to the gold rush until years after it took place.)

The visits underground resume in April, and shortly after, the tours will include a vast new "lost" portion of the original city as it looked when miners and speculators first landed these shores and unwisely chose this spot for a city.

Stop by. See the city as few have; few as old as we, anyway. Quite a few sesquicentenarians tour guides, spry for their age, can a spin some tales for you, of flood and fire and cholera and various and sundry disreputable acts. And every word of it true, or I'm not Shawn Turner … that is, Michael Kearney.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I was a fantasy football league logo designer

The accountant in question was decidedly unlike his logo manifestation.

My son joined a fantasy baseball league for the upcoming season. All I have to say is "Oy!" Or, "My condolences." As a fantasy baseball owner once, I realized to my dismay that I would then have to follow players I didn't care about. 
Hypehenating? Is this even allowed in logos under the Geneva Conventions?

Worse was when I drafted players for a co-worker's fantasy football team in his absence. It was hour upon hour of numbness, as I proposed players about which I had no context (except that they were on the absent owner's list; woe would be unto me for picking players if his first choices were already nabbed …) and then looked at the other owners' faces for signs of whether it was a good pick.
From some long-forgotten inside joke.
More fun by far was designing logos for a bunch of fantasy football team owners once. No money in it, of course, but I didn't lose any money this way, either.

Later I designed the logo for an adult co-ed softball team I belonged to. We lived in a neighborhood known as Arden Manor.
The type reminds me of Spy vs. Spy, somehow. Though not rowdy, some among us would argue meaningless calls
in friendly games in an embarrassingly childish manner.
The type solution came with three illustration choices for the team members to choose:
The base eater …
The somewhat kindlier base stealer …

The gender-neutral tornado. It was slow-pitch softball; the shape behind home plate
enlarged the pitcher's target.
Unfortunately for my ego, no T-shirts were made. :(

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Haul of Wonders, NBA Pavilion

The Kings as Globetrotters, flummoxing the hapless and unhip.
In hindsight, I misjudged the madding crowd I thought would flock to see this unique piece of basketball art in the Haul of Wonders collection. The pavilion I built is much too cavernous for this piece, which is more appropriate for a flat file (where I found it) or a Dumpster®™ (where it belongs, probably).

I unearth it in (dis)honor of the Sacramento Kings, who appear likely to become the (deep breath) Los Angeles Kings of Anaheim But For Basketball Not Hockey (Though On Some Nights It May Be Difficult To Distinguish). The majority owners, the Maloof family, prefer profiting from being the third-tier team, behind the Clippers, to moving to a city (Seattle, Vancouver) that lost an NBA team but at least has an arguably better venue than Sacramento's Arco Arena (now Power Balance Pavilion, named for a product of dubious worth; the irony is piling up like snowdrifts … The Power Balance people, upon learning the Kings might leave, are having a public "Hang on a minute …" moment.)

(I was sure the Kings would head for Las Vegas, where the Maloofs have the Palms Casino; the team could truly become America's NBA team, catering to the unusual model of having a different crowd each night: Tourists bored with the slot machines. But Las Vegas is sucking wind these days, and the Palms is wilting.)
A detail before I committed to the overall rough.

In need/want of a new arena, the Maloofs are ready to move on. Attempts to build a new arena have floundered; voters have been unwilling to support funding (though many, many other events use the arena; its nickname for concerts has been "Echo Arena"); the Maloofs have apparently never indicated how much they'd share in the cost of a new arena. A big proposal to switch the state fairgrounds with the arena site with the redeveloped railroad yard fell through when the fair board nixed the idea. The days have long passed when fans might have opened their wallets while the Kings were contenders. Or something like that. To tell you the truth, I don't really care.

I get it that the Kings' departure will tear the heart out of a fan base, and relegate Sacramento to that horrible, horrible state of a City Without an NBA Team. I also understand that the Kings and ownership poured massive amounts into community and charity work, and that will be lost. But I've never followed the Kings. It's not just basketball or sports in general: I rank among the least participatory citizens of my city, of any city. If cities were able to screen prospective residents, I would be banished to some Ted Kaczynski-caliber cabin in the woods, and my disposable income garnished.
A rough before I committed to the detail for the rough … huh?

As I age, I find my sports interest dwindling to whatever team my kids were playing on, the San Francisco Giants, and whatever team plays the Giants.

This project was apparently for a former co-worker who might have wanted it for a gift; I'm sure the finished piece is in the afore-mentioned Dumpster.®™ This is from a piece of vellum and it's rough, because I was just using it to block in the figures. I later traced over the vellum through graphite paper, transferring the rough images to cold press board, after which I would brush and ink the details and add color, probably with colored inks.

This was back when the Kings had the powder blue/red/white color scheme and crown-on-basketball logo (at center court) — the throwback look, as marketers say — before the more aggressive purple/black scheme now.

I did it in those days when I was desperate to convince people I could draw and that they should pay me for it, and I took little or no compensation in the vain hope that the recipient would pick up my subliminal signals that I want them to have a rich uncle/publisher who would see my work and hire me as a magazine staff illustrator. Marketing is not my strong suit.

Now we'll all wait to see what the Kings do, and the city's mayor, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, stands at the front of the crowd. I'll be at home.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Old Sacramento signs, part 3

A miner watches an assayer weigh his week's work.
The last in this batch of signs helping visitors around Old Sacramento. This guides visitors to another hole in the ground, like Pioneer Park, except this one is bricked in and turned into an oddly alluring (nice blog here, by the way, including shots of Pioneer Park) set of shops and nooks and crannies. Visitors can easily see the brick vaulted arches that held up the sidewalks when the city was raised out of the flood waters. These have French doors built into the shape, creating enclosed spaces beneath the sidewalk, though for what I'm not quite sure. This site is officially called Pioneer SQUARE. Yeah I know, confusing.

It was the site of a bath house, saloon, brothel (though, what place wasn't the site of a brothel or saloon in early Sacramento?) and, most important for those and other enterprises, it was where Prof. Lauriet opened his assay office. Miners brought their gold (in chunks or dust, what have you) and Prof. Lauriet weighed and assigned a dollar value to the find.

Miners could either buy goods and services directly in gold, or exchange it for coin which, ironically, came to less than the gold they brought in (kind of like winning the lottery and settling for a lesser lump sum while the state got its cut in taxes); the banks and exchanges loved this fact.

This site will not feature the large "gateway" signs of Waterfront and Pioneer parks in Old Sacramento. Boo!
The office in extended view, to accommodate the arch shape. The hardware on the small drawers
to the assayer's right were altered in the final step to look a tad more Victorian with a coupla curlicues.
Here's how this process played out:
This captured the right composition, though some details are not resolved;
for example, shouldn't we see the miner's face?
This is a little too composed, more art than documentation, though the gaunt miner,
suggesting toothlessness, turned out well. He's eager to learn the result. The clients wanted
a pick in the picture, but I'm skeptical whether a miner would have brought it with him from the foothills,

like a carrying card. The scale became a challenge — many were behemoths, perfect for the exact measure
of gold, but rotten for this illustration. I had to research scales that would have
sufficed without sacrificing the assay office's veracity.
No, this miner's just too Gabby Hayes.
The composition is better, though the assayer's face is tangled in the scale.
The miner in profile, which the clients preferred. He needed to be gaunt and scruffy,
just not like the '49ers who appears in logos and legend. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One-hundred years of servitude

Long ago I had the pleasure (and pain) of working for The Hanford Sentinel during its centennial. The publisher of the daily, smack in the center of California's San Joaquin Valley, decided to celebrate by running an 11-section commemorative edition of the paper. Ten of the sections would recap each decade of The Sentinel, with a wrap-around section.

Each reporter and mid-level editor was assigned two decades to research and write about. Lacking the guidance of a resident geezer to recap the last century into a handy digest, we resigned ourselves to thumbing through every page of every edition The Sentinel published that decade. I had the '30s and '50s.

For months and months, after our regular workday, we would fetch bound editions of The Sentinel and sit long into the night, thumbing the editions in search of stories that represented the era, and especially for stories we could update.

It was torturous, but it had its benefits:
1. My wife Nancy was a reporter with me, and we could spend the evenings sharing the misery.
2. Another reporter, Jim Graham, turned me on to Tom Waits and let me listen to his "Rain Dogs" tape in his Sony Walkman over and over. And over. "Downtown Train" is seared into my soul.
3. I got to read the comic strip "Gasoline Alley" every day for two decades. It's one of the few comics (maybe the first) that worked in what we now call "real time," because the characters grow up, age, die and do all the things human counterparts do. I was sad to say goodbye at the end of the 1930s, and ecstatic to get reacquainted in the 1950s, like a dusty yellowed reunion, trying to figure out what had transpired in the intervening decade. I was soooooo tempted to sneak 1940s editions to stay with the strip, but I would never have gotten my work done if I had. (Though not a big fan of comics continuing beyond the creator's death or retirement — this just in: Charles Schulz is dead! — I'm glad "Gasoline Alley" continues under current artist Jim Scancarelli because of the characters' realistic development.)
4. I did some interesting stories, including an interview with a Hanford man, at the time a city park maintenance supervisor, who was a prisoner of war during the Korean War, and who told me tales he had not even told his wife, such has how Chinese soldiers dragged him by broken legs through the snow.

In the end, though, the staff was bone weary of the project once done, without much energy or enthusiasm to celebrate our achievement. I made up this medal, loosely patterned after the Croix de Candlestick (an ancient award given to San Francisco Giants fans who stuck through extra innings of Candlestick Park night games), and gave it to fellow reporters, out of sight of the publisher.