Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Medici, Part IV: Is this the end?

Little-known fact: The tail of an evolving pink dog will eventually curl downward as it reaches the zenith
of evolutionary development.
A wrap-around for a promotional coffee
Over several happy years, Greg Archer posed many promotional problems for me to help solve when he owned The Rest Stop, a Sacramento bicycle accessories store.

He still poses fun problems as owner of Archer Bicycle Repair.

In addition to  promotional postcards, a bicycling cap and racing jerseys, Archer dreamed up a bunch of ads and promotional possibilities. Here are some of the rest.
"Nothing compares with the simple pleasure of a bike ride," said John F. Kennedy, in the barely legible type along
the crest of the hill. Why did he say it? I don't know. It's not world peace or nuclear winter, but it works here.

For a mug that didn't get made.
"I've got an idea," Greg would say over the phone, and a new adventure would commence, usually starring the pink dog.

Greg was building the identity of the store he inherited when he bought it, and establish it as the go-to source for, as he said it, everything for bicyclists but the bike. It was serious business run unseriously; customers could count on staffers' time for answers or just some tangentially bike-related conversation.

The list of ideas exceeded Greg's ability to produce it. Coffee mugs and a water bottle hit the shelves next to the jerseys and cap.

Ads frequented the neighborhood publications.

A new fiery pink sign even hung above the store door.

But the official flags never flew. And the beers remain unbrewed. Pity.

Rest Stop Bohemian is my favorite … this is a spec sheet for Greg Archer, with internal notes.

Made into an embossing stamp (below), it validated The Rest Stop gift buck.
In what I'm sure is the worst Latin translation possible, it says, "My dog ate it."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The eyes have it

He knows when you are sleeping, comrade …
Change happens, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

A Luddite from way back, I meet change with lethargy, so facebook's new Timeline feature — and the subsequent cattle call to get all us facebookers with the program on the new format — left me catatonic …

… until I saw the great big picture frame facebook gives us to reveal things visual about our lives.

Though not eager to populate my profile with actual information about my life — it bores me even to contemplate telling it — I don't mind rebranding my artwork.

So I'm performing wholesale surgery on my collection, extricating the eyes in each and blowing them up mondo large, mad scientist style.

No big deal, so to speak. Just trying to make the space interesting.

Then a few people indicated they "liked" the resulting abstract shapes, which surprised me (that you could "like" that picture, for starters; that facebook even tells people that I put up a new picture — can't make a move without facebook telling everyone you know; and that people would find the abstraction remarkable.)

It occurred to me that I should post the artwork from which those abstractions came. The eyes above come from the holiday card I call "Commie Santa:"

The Peter Max-ish monstrosity below is a blow-up of a grand ol' caricature I made of The Daily Show Host Jon Stewart:

First up: This tiki-inspired logo for a Boy Scout summer camp excursion:
More to come …

Thursday, April 19, 2012

One excuse after another

A C-minus on the Effective Editorial Cartoon Scale …
The earth shook San Francisco 106 years ago this week, giving me another flimsy excuse to blab about tangentially related cartoons. These follow the day the earth did another number on The City 23 years ago.

The San Francisco Giants were about to play the Oakland A's Oct. 17 in Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, when the TV signal hiccupped and disappeared. Then the ground beneath me in suburban Sacramento gently rippled. My wife, pregnant with our firstborn, and the women with her, planning an event in the next room, simultaneously felt queasy and glanced around to see if anyone else noticed.

In the constant din of news about the devastating earthquake, I drew a buncha cartoons. The Stockton Record ran the one above, which as cartoons go, doesn't go very far. It became merely visual relief on a gray page. "Cartoonist feels earthquake, fumbles the commentary, whelms readers" — that about sums it up.

My more pointed cartoons, about the literal and political fallout of the quake, including the one below, were harder to sell:
Though the Embarcadero is a broad and beautiful avenue again, the elevated double-decker that used to darken the piers along San Francisco's inner bay became a horrendous deathtrap in the Loma Prieta quake.
Gov. George Deukmejian wasn't alone in passing blame for what might have been lax oversight in the seismic stability of all that the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down. But he wasn't at the forefront saying, "We need to fix this!" either. I dunno; maybe my pointed 'toons lacked taste and decorum.

Which is sorta what I was going for.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Titanic excuse

Gov. George Deukmejian basks in elder-statesman status now — and actually looks good compared to some of the
doozies who followed — but he was a true Reagan Republican. In other words, he believed the haves should have more, and the have-nots should simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and magically become haves,
like all right-thinking Californians.
The most important part of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's tragic sinking, of course, is that it gives me the flimsy pretense to post editorial cartoons about sinking ships.

I was the first editorial cartoonist to use sinking ships as metaphors for epic failure, or for our elected leaders abandoning the people they serve. OK, so maybe I was the 8,341st. Nit pickers!
Of course, Duke (as no one called him) had help in dismantling the state, from the normally unsinkable
Assembly Speaker (and former San Francisco Mayor) Willie Brown.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Just a wee morsel

I was trying to capture a dreamy girl too big for the quiet nurturing
turn-of-the-century place in which she was raised.
The fun of volunteer/pro bono work — in the ideal, anyway — is being able to work out ideas selfishly, without necessarily having to please anyone but yourself. Of course, you don't want recipients to hate the result, so there's that snag in the ideal universe.

When our daughter performed and worked behind the scenes in high school productions, I volunteered graphics help, helpless as I was at most other tasks the theater department needed.

Here's a T-shirt design and some secondary playbill graphics.

Forced me to read a book!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Instagram of Nancy and me visiting our son and his girlfriend in Chico.
Not in 1972, as you might be thinking, but in 2012. That's what
$1 billion will get you.
I'm getting old, I confess, and more confused by the minute. Must be the great Powering Down that eases me into an eventual life of apoplexy and prune pudding.

Leafing through magazines at the hair cutter's or the dentist's, for instance, I frequently see page after page of celebrities I've never seen or heard of before.

They appear without context, without an explanation or justification for their celebrity. They're just there, demanding me to recognize them, but I don't. In the pictures they are marrying or divorcing or having babies that they name after a combination of colors and farm implements.

Or they are selling their Taos mansions (never buying, always selling … why?), or on the islands they own, rocking bikinis made by the fashion icons I have never heard of either.

Burger made, picture taken, 21st Century.
If context ever is provided, it's a disappointment: Usually the celebrity is someone I'm supposed to know from a reality television show in which a woman dates a bunch of men — or vice versa —on camera, and never really does marry the one he/she picks to marry — surprise! — because the Bachelor or Bachelorette really wants instead to appear on "Celebrity Apprentice" or "Dancing with the Stars." Again, the snake eats itself. (No, I'm not linking to those two shows.)

Fabulous rivers of money move beyond my notice, and vast unknowable people dip refreshed in their nourishing current.

Can I get a "Come again?"

The death knell for me is Instagram®™©, an app that facebook just bought for $1 billion. Dollar sign, the number one, and then nine zeroes.

And why not? With Instagram, users can take a perfectly good digital picture, run it through a filter to make it look the awful of their choice — poorly lit, yellowed, scratchy, abused in someone's back pocket, chemically color mismatched — and share it on their various social media.

That's what it does, right? Did I leave out something? Did I stomp on a nuance?

Meet Simba, keeper of our son's
girlfriend. I think the film roll
data is part of an Instagram filter.
That sound is broke Kodak™®©
retirees gnashing the nubs of their teeth.
In other words, with the same technology that rocketed us light years away from the era in which bad things could often happen to good photos, we can make good photos bad on purpose — for the enjoyment, no doubt, of legions who never had to make do with actual, physical poorly processed/colored/lit photos that came by snail mail order.

My son loves Instagram; it's how I know about it, through his facebook posts. These are his photos. To be fair, he's studying photography, knows computer graphics through-and-through, and also lives the social media, just like his peers, not merely dabbles in them. Also, he doesn't have the bad photos of which I speak — until the time of my prune pudding when he gets some of the photo albums for his inheritance.

He takes some good pix with Instagram, excepting the galoof at the top next to the lovely woman. He also takes pictures of foods he will eat, or roads he will drive on. Birds of the air. Leaves of the tree, and such.

When I first saw Instagram photos, I said to myself, "Hey, that's … ok … "

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home in
Scottsdale, Ariz. Also an architecture school. Wonder
what the master might have said about Instagram …
Not something I'd ever use, but I've seen it, and I move on. Which is the mantra I deploy for most tech tools I encounter. I'm old, I told you. (Also, why is the Instagram website address spelled "" with the dot in the middle of the word? It's not like I don't understand too much already.)

Not sure I ever, ever, ever would have said, "Hey, Instagram has gotta be worth $1 billion, easy!"

Because it isn't. Unless the market says so, so I'm wrong.

Instagram will keep on doing what it's doing, its creators announced. Ten people total work at Instagram, which by the way has no profits. Each employee could get $100 million in cash and facebook stock options if they divided the purchase price evenly. Which they probably won't.

CEO-founders gotta eat, after all. Where have you been living, under a rock?

With me?

Friday, April 6, 2012

If you play it, he will come …

My banjo never looked so good or held such promise.
My high school friend Wayne Singleton, who went on to be
a photographer and graphic designer carefully arranged the
still life in late light, and I went ahead and ruined it with a
poor copy and a bad scan. I still have the picks and the hat.
The cardboard case, shiny black in the pattern of alligator skin beneath the dust, would be hard to pry from the corner of my closet. It contains a Hohner banjo, badly out of tune I'm sure, and it would be a pathetic tribute to extricate and try to play it in memory of Earl Scruggs, one of those who got me playing the thing to begin with.

Earl Scruggs, who may have done more than anyone to usher in the three-finger picking style most people associate with bluegrass banjo music, died last week.

But the banjo is really like Field of Dreams. I played it not because of Earl Scruggs, but for my dad.

Steve Martin, the comedian, might have got me interested in the banjo at first. He's an excellent banjo player and writer.

Martin's playing took me on a backward journey where I discovered Scruggs and Lester Flatt, then Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. So I wanted to play.

My parents and I bought the Hohner, and a how-to book endorsed by Scruggs.

I never sought approval from my dad. We didn't have that kind of relationship. Short of not doing my share around the household, I think I was doing OK by my dad; I always felt he supported me. But his own childhood was a checkered mystery to me, and I guess I wanted to make connections. Country music was a big clue — he lived for it — and bluegrass was at its core. So I practiced and practiced, mostly to have something to talk about.

One Sunday a month we'd pack a chicken lunch and drive south to Santa Barbara where bluegrass pickers congregated in a park. I still remember the comfort a distant sound of players tuning would bring, their guitars and mandolins and banjos and basses mewling in the still spring air. Though I always expected to go home knowing a new song or a lick, I usually ended up showing someone else what little I knew.

It was a bit like learning a second language and having no place to apply it. Maybe my hometown had bluegrass players, but I didn't find them. When I finally did find players in college, I couldn't keep up and/or became interested in other things. Bless him, one of my college roommates, David Middlecamp, still jams with friends. My boxed banjo sits in the closet as a tangible regret.

Or maybe it had served its purpose, establishing that connection between my dad and me.

One night in high school my dad and I listened to the Cache Valley Drifters play at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. A third of the way into the concert, the band announced a surprise guest, and from behind the curtain stepped Don Reno.

For the folks in the theater, this was akin to Bruce Springsteen showing up unannounced at a nameless roadside tavern to play a set.

The story goes that Earl Scruggs' star rose as Don Reno joined the Army, and that if not for that people would associate the three-finger style with Reno rather than Scruggs. Somehow I knew that story when Reno stepped on stage.

The instrument demonstrated why Hohner is better known for harmonicas — sorry Hohner! Toward the end of my playing days, my dad introduced me to an Air Force airman who was transferring out. He had a Gibson Mastertone, the gold standard in banjos. The thing thunked in my lap, and I realized the big resonator on the back of the banjo is supposed to be solid wood, not laminated plywood. The strings on the Gibson also lay mere millimeters off the head, the strings soft to the touch of the metal picks clamped to my fingers; on the Hohner, my fingers had to climb high above the strings, to attempt finger rolls in the air.

Which reminds me that I must make a lot of excuses in life for why this thing or that turned out the way it did. I can't blame the instrument for why I didn't keep playing.

Maybe the box wouldn't be so hard to pull out of the closet after all.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Walking my talk

Stephanie Eisner's controversial cartoon for The Daily Texan, which I got from The Digital Texan. This beats my previous description of it, for one thing. For another, I didn't mention in the last post that the figure in the chair represents the media. For a third, I don't know of too many editorial cartoonists who draw with ink washes, so I thought you should see.
A graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, has launched a petition seeking to reinstate Stephanie Eisner as a staff cartoonist for The Daily Texan.

Eisner was the cartoonist with whom the newspaper discontinued its relationship after publishing this cartoon last week. Critics protested that the cartoon was a racist response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The newspaper apologized, Stephanie Eisner took a couple of opportunities to apologize and explain, and prairie fire over the shooting and its aftermath continues to burn hot across the nation.

Samian Quazi, the graduate student and a former columnist for The Daily Texan, contacted me asking to help publicize the petition, and I do so now. You can go here to sign the petition and read Quazi's arguments.

I support Quazi's effort because it makes some points that I missed in the previous post about the cartoon, which was really not much more than a oh-something-similar-happened-to-me! catharsis.

Quazi is taking action.

Chief among the points: Stephanie Eisner appears to have been let go for doing her job. She advanced her opinion on the opinion page. It's a valid, credible criticism of the news media's recklessness in covering an incident like Trayvon Martin's shooting.

I infer that Eisner used incendiary words — particularly "colored boy" — to focus her point that the media firestorm over the shooting and aftermath helped mushroom the incident beyond our ability to examine the details thoughtfully, and maybe consider that the rage exceeds its due.

Just my opinion.

When too many professional cartoonists use their space as visual knock-knock jokes to give readers a break from all that … opionion, here is a cartoonist trying to use every square inch to advance a meaningful idea, and prod people to think. 

Eisner's cartoon indeed enraged some readers, though not as Eisner must have intended. Protesting readers perceived that the cartoonist was hurling slurs and perpetuating racist ideas. She was doing just the opposite.

"We sincerely apologize for publishing the offensive cartoon and for the harm that decision caused," The Daily Texan wrote, noting that its editorial board approved the cartoon.

This one of those rare times in which the usually insincere "I apologize to any who were offended" apologies works, because Eisner didn't draw an offensive cartoon. She drew one in which some readers chose to take offense, and not to see her point.

The only thing Eisner may be guilty of — besides misspelling Trayvon Martin's name — is lack of clarity. Ironically, she might have skirted the rage by employing extreme visual stereotypes to make the same point; turn the mother figure into a summer camp leader, for example, scaring hell out of her shrinking charges with a monster story, say. Use the same language and letterforms, but ramp up the contrast and melodrama.

Which brings up the second big reason Stephanie Eisner should be reinstated and Samian Quazi's petition should succeed: The Daily Texan is a student newspaper. Sure, it operates like a hard-nosed medium-city daily at one of the nation's top journalism schools, but it's a place where students learn their craft. It's where they should be able to fail, reassess, regroup, and move forward, applying what they've learned.

Eisner should not have had to apologize for her cartoon, and then told to go away. She should be given opportunities to learn how to make her point sharp and unequivocal, and practice it.

So far, all she's learning — all any of us is learning — is that it's suicidal to dare an opinion, to fight prairie fire with prairie fire, because your supposed supporters will throw you into the fire to quell the outrage, even if the offense misses the message.

Odd lesson to learn in a country with all that fancy Bill of Rights stuff.

Read more on Samian Quazi's quest here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What I was trying to say …

Oy, did I blow it!
Lord, how I know Stephanie Eisner must feel!

Until last week, Stephanie was a staff cartoonist for The Daily Texan, the campus/city newspaper for the University of Texas, Austin. Then she drew her take on the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager in Sanford, Fla, and the newspaper discontinued her services. (Here's another view of her take.)

You know the Trayvon Martin story, because we're all awash in the fallout of its controversy: George Zimmerman, described as a white Latino and a Neighborhood Watch captain in a gated community, told police he shot the unarmed Martin, who is black, in self defense. What really happened remains in dispute; critics say that Zimmerman chased Martin down and shot him, which may have violated "stand your ground" laws designed to protect citizens under attack. Zimmerman says Martin attacked him. Protests demanding Zimmerman's arrest spread across the country.

The incident is a newflash point over race relations, racial prejudice, lingering unresolved issues of institutionalized injustice, and general angst over the safety of children and teens. The hooded sweatshirt quickly became its symbol.

Stephanie Eisner was trying to add a meaningful tangent to the fierce expanding dialogue over the shooting. Her attempt backfired, went viral and public, and only fueled more rage.

The cartoon — which The Daily Texan editorial board approved — depicts a mom (?) reading a story to her child (?) from a book, "Treyvon (sic) Martin and the Case of Yellow Journalism."

"AND THEN the BIG BAD WHITE man killed killed the HANDSOME, sweet, innocent COLORED BOY!!," the mom tells the child, aghast.

Eisner was trying to say — at least, I infer — that many of news and entertainment media went immediately to stereotypes in the early going, typical in a rush to report. Rather than exhibit patience and care, or an examination of nuance and uncertainties, the media made this a simple black-and-white (literally and figuratively), good vs. evil story. Thoughtful, thorough reporting and meta-reporting comes later, as in this case, but often too late to ameliorate the results of the first news.

Pundits opine on the first news, sometimes idiotically, as in this case. Other pundits opine on the idiocy of the first pundits, and so it goes. Anger lingers.

Many readers regarded Eisner's point as endorsing the perpetuation of racist stereotypes and slurs — because she used slurs and stereotypes to make the opposite point.

I know how she feels, having drawn a cartoon for the Mustang Daily, my college newspaper — freelancing after I graduated. The 'toon blew up in my face and embarrassed the newspaper. That's the awful thing at the top of this post.

What I was trying to do — and the fact that I still have to explain it means I could and should have done a much better job — is restate George Santayana's aphorism, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it:"

If we don't study the effects of racism that happened before us, if we don't appreciate the harm our discriminatory thought and action — and inaction — can do, then we are not prepared to improve our communities and are apt to continue harm.

That's what I was trying to say.

I even ladled on the irony by having one of the vandals run off to a history test. No specific incident prompted this cartoon; more likely I was trying to employ the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a spotlight on ever-lingering issues of racial tension and the potential for the college audience to ignore lessons of the past. I trusted readers to realize I was exaggerating to make my point. No one at Cal Poly was burning crosses or painting racist rants on walls at the time.

In my cartoon, Martin Luther King is supposed to be an ethereal figure formed out of the smoke of the burning cross. But the way I drew him, he looks more like a flesh-and-blood giant, inexplicably plugged waist deep into the earth, the smoke sooting his skin and suit.

But the thing that gutted this 'toon — the tiny detail that made its message the opposite of my intent — is the graffiti on the wall. Well, really just n-word.

The newspaper ran the cartoon. Students and faculty wrote letters, all of which I probably tossed long ago. The letters said what you would expect: How dare he! Is this the kind of person we should have at this university? Fire the cartoonist! I'm boycotting the newspaper! Fire everyone involved with this disgrace.

I understood this much about their anger: I hadn't been clear. It's as if the writers saw only those small words at the geographic center of the cartoon, and regarded all the other elements as a doodly, meaningless frame. They received those words — that one word — as my message.

I wrote an apology at the editor's request. The fact that I had to write an apology meant I had not done my job, which was to be so crystalline in my opinion that the work stood on its own. Probably my relationship as a guest cartoonist for the Mustang Daily ended shortly after.

Why did I toss the angry letters? Pain, I guess. But if I was going to become an editorial cartoonist, I had to be ready for rock throwing, and gather up all the rocks thrown. Good editorial cartoonists want people to react to their work, maybe to get angry, maybe to laugh sardonically, but in some way to be moved to act — to write a harsh letter to the editor, to support the candidate or cause, to consider another argument.

Like Stephanie Eisner, though, I wanted readers to react to what I meant to say.

RIP: Rex Babin, editorial cartoonist for The Sacramento Bee, passed away last week at 49 from stomach cancer. He had a unique sketchy, stoccato drawing style, and was adept at exposing President George W. Bush and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for what they were.