Thursday, January 29, 2015

Don't get around much anymore

What began as this blog's first-ever movie review (!) has morphed into a total-experience review, wrapped around a movie and made complete with a trip (and several falls) down memory lane.

From the last time I entered a contest: A local humor publication inaugurated a
competition. Thinking I had a good shot, and riffing off Madonna's silly expensive
coffee-table book from the time, I entered this. The award went to the professional
cartoonist in town who entered, and I wrote the editor, pissed off about that.
The editor was one of the panelists last night. It's been 23 years but I'm over it.
Really I am.
Oh, and the merest possible excuse to run an old editorial cartoon, which has nothing to do with anything except it's a cartoon.

It takes a lot these days to get me into downtown Sacramento, especially at night. Too much meh going around these days.

The occasion drawing me out of the house last night was "Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy," a French documentary showcasing the work, trials and passions of cartoon satirists from around the world.

Plus, Sacramento Bee editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman was going to be there for a panel discussion, and it was a chance to meet him. After I had complimented him on some work a while back, he unexpectedly invited me to lunch, but we could never get on track. After a while it felt like I was stalking him — "Look! You promised lunch!" — so I dropped it.
(Note to Bob: I tried, man. I really tried.)
The Sacramento French Film Festival hosted the screening in response to the Paris shootings early this month in which staff and veteran cartoonists of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were killed. The shooters, who died later after taking hostages, said they had done so to avenge offense Charlie cartoonists had committed to Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad.

Though the documentary by Stéphanie Valloatto does not include Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and was finished before the shootings, it captures the palpable tension cartoonists face across the world, and the courage with which they persist.

"Cartoonists" yesterday received a nomination as top documentary for the César Award, the French Oscar.

Hopscotching around the world, the film features cartoonists in Russia, China, Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Tunisia, Israel, Palestine, the Ivory Coast and Mexico. The United States is represented by Jeff Danziger, a syndicated cartoonist — one of the nation's most acerbic — who doesn't work for a newspaper. More on that later.

Jean Plantureux, a French cartoonist for Le Monde, serves as the thread running through the documentary. Plantu, as he's called, created Cartooning for Peace, a kind of Doctors Without Borders, except with ink-stained wretches. In the movie he travels to Israel, where the Israeli cartoonist, Michel Kichka, and Palestinian satirist, Baha Boukhari, are friends united in their fight against armed conflict and universal hypocrisy.

"Cartoonists" also introduces viewers briefly to Ali Farzat, a Syrian cartoonist, now in exile, whose hands were broken in 2011 by Syrian security forces for satirizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad … Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist infamous for depicting Muhammad with a bomb in a turban and igniting violent protests and persistent debate about free speech … and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist whose work critical of government corruption has banned him from being able to leave his country.
OK, one more cartoon. Strike while the rare opportunity arises, right?

How was the movie? As a survey of editorial cartooning and satire worldwide, it's instructive for bursting our bubble that cartooning is only a U.S. or Western medium. Some of the cartoonists featured face constant surveillance, ostracism and death threats. Damien Glez reports news by publishing a cartoon-heavy paper in Burkina Faso for a largely illiterate population.

Too many cartoonists, though, spoiled the broth. The movie should have focused on three or four cartoonists — I was most intrigued by Rayma Suprani of Venezuela, one of too few women cartoonists, who describes the daily oppression of life under presidents Hugo Chåvez and now Nicolås Maduro; and Pi San, an animator whose political cartoons use the Internet to spread word of corrupt practices.

But just as I thought the movie would focus on one cartoonist's approach to a controversial issue, another cartoonist was introduced. Then another, then another. OK, maybe now they'll show the fallout of a particular cartoon and — no, here's another cartoonist.

Watch it on your friendly neighborhood streaming service. And learn French: Though it's subtitled, the text is white and so, it turns out, is the paper the cartoonists use. Too often when a cartoonist made a salient point, it was lost in white letters on a white background as the director showed the cartoonist's work.

Lost to this arrogant imperialist monolingualist, anyway. Maybe the director was sticking it to me.

I'm glad I went, though. The Crest Theatre, a movie palace from another age, just a skinny city block over from the state capitol building, still looks as good as the day nearly 20 years ago when I was minister-for-a-day and presided over the wedding of graphic designers Paul and Julie. The theater is still cuckoo for rococo —great gold-painted plaster torches, uplit in fierce orange and yellow, along the walls, recessed ceiling spaces high overhead, lit in blue above vast gold friezes, like sapphire pools suspended upside down.

And great acoustics! I could easily hear a woodworking, bluegrass banjo playing, horse-hoof clipping, globetrotting man (he told quite the nonstop story!) translate "Je Suis Charlie," which blazed big on the movie screen before the show started, for his date. I couldn't tell if his date was being coy, overthinking it or had just come from under a rock. "I'd like to learn a language," she said.

And I got to meet Jack Ohman. He didn't recognize my name, not that I expected him too. It was late, everyone was tired, and I was following a man who had buttonholed Ohman to draw cartoons exposing the Kennedy assassination coverup ("It's all bullshit," said Ohman, apparently a student of the assassination. "There's no credible evidence."). He was gracious but the energy for a quick visit was gone. And so it went, as it has gone for just about any person of note whom I'd like to meet. It's what I get for being polite.

Ohman was not optimistic for the future of the pen. He is president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, which numbers 50 nationwide. When he started 37 years ago, the United States had more than 250 full-time cartoonists. Editorial cartoonists, he told the audience, are only as good as their editors are brave. Danziger no longer draws for a newspaper.

It was telling that Danziger, the lone American cartoonist in the documentary, said he was too afraid to put his name to one work that went unpublished. It was on par with the salacious work French cartoonists produce regularly. Titled, "Cheney, Dick," it showed a naked former vice president from the back, holding a used condom over a toilet bowl. The condom bears the likeness of George W. Bush.

Robert Salladay, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, told the crowd he was more optimistic about holding power accountable, though he cautioned that even though the Internet has spread the message, the message itself is getting atomized to smaller and smaller audiences. His center relies on massive donations to do its work.

People have every right to offend and be offended, Salladay said, but no right to violence and murder for their offense. When it happens, all debate must cease, and satirists should redouble their efforts to skewer.

Cartoonist Plantu said the satirists' greatest fear is the people's fear. A people afraid, he said, will not be brave enough to accept the truth and do something about it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bury me not

Having accrued a few funerals now, I'm ready to plan my own.

No rush. Nor any reason, really, except that having come from a funeral last weekend, I jotted some stuff down while it's on my mind.

Bookmark this post for future reference. "Well, he's dead," you might say, when the day comes. "Now what?"

Here's what.
  • [Default plan]: Do whatever you want. I won't be there.
  • Otherwise, should you desire to commemorate my life in some way you think reflects me, may I recommend:
  • No church service. No Mass, no más. That's overkill, so to speak. No final prayers or well-timed water sprinkling over some final representation of my body will lock in my passage to heaven or the afterlife or a better place. I figure if I'm to go to any one of those places (if they're indeed separate), the reservations have already been made.

    No point in having a priest read my name and the names of my family out of a book, and talk like he knows me, and assure folks of my safe passage, when folks are already deciding for themselves what's become of me.

    The most surreal moment in a surreal week following my dad's death was when I walked across the overlarge parking lot of the Catholic church in which I grew up. It's on the end of my childhood street, and I was finishing a long walk of contemplation. At that moment, I was at peace.

    The parish priest, who I only knew of as a kid when he ran the parish downtown,  cut a brisk diagonal of the parking lot, power-walking straight at me.

    "Was William Turner your father?!" the priest asked, his face coming very close to mine. How he would have known this, I have no idea.


    "Well, why didn't you bury him in the Church?!" The priest's face had reddened, his eyes searching mine, as if for signs I'd gone mad.

    I'm sure my face reddened too, with anger and shock, but I tried to explain very calmly that he hadn't been part of the Church for a long, long time. I considered my dad spiritual, in his own way, with a good heart, but he didn't really find church home.

    I know I'm supposed to believe the Catholic Church is the one true church, but I don't. I'm sure the priest believes my dad's passage to eternal rest didn't take, since we had a memorial gathering at a rented dining hall instead, and scattered his ashes someplace rather than contain them in officially sanctified ground, but I don't share the priest's view.

    That weird moment will always stay with me.
  • What?! No church service?! you might be saying. If you're in charge, then deploy the default plan. I won't mind.
  • Cremate my body, in the cheapest possible legal manner; the burden should be light, no maxing credit cards or deferring payments on other matters important for living for the sake of this.

    I really like this idea of mixing my ashes with a tree root ball, and planting the tree where it'll do good. This would be such a miniscule correction in the vast carbon footprint I've made, but at least it would be something.

    Plant the tree where it can do some good.

    Do that separately from any kind of remembrance ceremony. Just family and anyone else who would like to come along. I still feel the good somber weight on my shoulders as I carried my dad's ashes in a backpack into undisclosed woods at dusk, purply cool and redolent, scattering the ashes where rains would wash them into the sand.

    No rush on this part. When the time is right.

    Don't feel need to visit the tree. I won't be there. But visit the forest when you can; breathe deeply in gratitude for it.
  • Have a remembrance ceremony. Have fun, make it your fun. Have fun in spite of me; have fun for me, my reputation for fun in public being rather shoddy.

    I won't be there, except in memory, which is my idea of heaven, anyway.

    Every construct of heaven I've ever heard is — I'm sorry — boring. Reunite with loved ones in a place of bliss and light, within sight of God, and — then what? For eternity? Would we know the passing of time, sense its eternity?

    Heaven to me is the shared memory of someone, the energy burned in remembering, which ignites a smile or a longing or a moment of admiration. I see my parents, for example, in the gestures and expressions and mannerisms of others.

    An outdoors ceremony would be nice. Plenty of space out at Lake Natoma, where I swim. But it's up to you. It could be raining, you know.

    No flowers, please — such a waste! — unless they're from your garden, and only if you want to. If so, maybe toss a few upon the water, let the vague current float them away.

    I like the idea of paddle-out ceremonies, in which surfers slide out past the breakers and form a circle, tossing flowers in the center in memory of a fellow surfer. I like it because it's a ceremony for the living. Maybe this ceremony could have a swim-out, for those so inclined.

    Food? Here endeth my planning talents, though since I lean toward deli sandwiches for Thanksgiving, you know my preferences. I won't be there. Plan your own fun.
  • Have music at the ceremony — not to permeate proceedings, but more like a listening room or, if it's outdoors, some place off to the side, where people can listen to the music that weaves together my life. People can listen at their choosing, the whole thing or snippets.

    Few things connect and transport people so well as music.

    My son worked diligently to catalog most of this list on CDs (I've added a couple since) a few years back when I first thought of it. Some of the selections were hard to find, and I asked for specific versions.

    It was a time I was feeling down and dwelling heavily on these matters. No more. Now I can think of this with distance and clarity and evenness of mind.

    Do you know what snapped me out of that funk? Swimming. It saved me. Swimming is a daily affirmation of being alive, of struggle and challenge, of taking in the world through my pores, of draining away anxieties and drawing in strength.

    Music has narrated that and all my life.
  • Here's my list, for a preview, or in case you have to miss the ceremony. I'll tack on more as time goes by:
  • Theme from Batman. Nothing could keep me from my weekly appointment, even if I couldn't tell time while I explored the vast eucalyptus forests fringing Vandenberg Air Force Base. I always knew to show up to the house as the show started.
  • Silver Wings. This takes me back to a picnic table (any table) beside a lake (any lake) next to my parents' trailer. Dad supplied the music on a cassette player for camping trips, like it or lump it, and eventually we chose the former. Merle Haggard's sad song has stuck with me since, still smelling of pines and campfire.

    Most of my childhood, I thought Merle was singing about "roaring angels, heading somewhere in flight," which still made sense.
  • Looking for Space. Back when my life's ambition was to animate "The Lord of the Rings" (impossible, I decided), John Denver's est-y song ran through my mind as a theme. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Still does.
  • Someone Saved My Life . For no logical reason, Elton John's song was my junior high plea for help, Sugar Bear.
  • Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. More junior high survival music, thanks to Billy Joel; just someone else's story I needed to hear. Now you know I loved Joel and John Denver. Keep it our secret.
  • I'm Easy. The Commodores made the best road song ever. I'll be dead, so you won't be able to argue with me.
  • Soldier's Joy. Such sweet happy music, hearkening to my high school years when I played bluegrass banjo, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made a landmark album with bluegrass greats. I imagined it was about soldiers' relief that war was over; it may be about a narcotic concoction that steeled soldiers to fight. Oh well.

    Banjo nerds: The great Earl Scruggs is three-finger picking, and John McEuen playing clawhammer.
  • Canon in D. Just close your eyes and go somewhere. I know people call this "classic lite," but who cares what people say? Since college, this version of Pachelbel by the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra has taken me far.
  • If I Needed You. Our song. Nancy is Emmylou Harris on the melody, I'm Don Williams with the harmony.
  • Appalachian Spring. Everyone should have a life soundtrack, however romanticized and irrelevant. Aaron Copland wrote mine. It's equal parts heartache and elation. That feeling? That's your chest swelling.
  • Downtown Train. Tom Waits came to me at just the right time, and rescued me from a mental penitentiary at work late at night, long ago. Beautiful redeeming grime, and a guitar that pierces you clean.
  • Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter. William Ackerman made something beautiful, and serendipity found it for me. (The video of Ackerman playing is distracting, so I recommend just closing your eyes and listening.)
  • Adagio for Strings. Oliver Stone co-opted Samuel Barber's work for "Platoon" and now it's hard to divorce the two from our collective psyche. But I'm confident that with repeated listenings, it can find its rightful place in your personal sorrow.
  • Mr. Jones. The Counting Crows broke out right at another transformative time in my life, and this song will always mark that bend on the river.
  • These Are Days. The epitaph for carefree days, before our children went to school and the world seemed wide open and all of us were exploring it through their eyes. Just try not dancing to 10,000 Maniacs.
  • Caravan. Van Morrison conjures a dark winter night, warm and untroubled in a room, candles lit on the corner tables, young parents slunk in overstuffed love seats, enjoying the time of children's eventual slumber. It might conjure something else entirely for you. Enjoy however you please.
  • One. Best rock song ever. Again, you won't be able to argue the point. Any aspersions for Bono and U2 will have to be cast among the living. Let it go, let the song build in you.
  • A Comet Appears. The Shins made this beautifully tragic anthem for my comically tragic time as a schoolteacher.
  • Jesus of Suburbia. Despite having come late to Green Day — and U2, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen — I still feel need after all these years to vent youthful anger. Let your heart beat fast.
  • Ave Maria. Not the one you're thinking of. This one by Franz Biebl beats all others to hell. Relax and soar.
  • Corduroy. Pearl Jam makes more of an imprint than I let on with this song, but let it be a gateway drug for you to listen to more.
  • Never Mind the Strangers. I'll let The Saw Doctors close the loop on this, a good song with which folks can go home happy for their living.
  • The take-away: If the circumstances of my death, whatever they will be, can help you, speak plainly about them to one another. Maybe they remind you to see a doctor regularly, or to change habits to improve your health. Don't be afraid to share. You won't offend anyone. How I go may end up being the best thing about remembering me.

    If you want to give to a cause in my name, that'd be nice. I like local food lockers, but you may have a cause you love. That'd be cool.

    A big hug with someone nearby would be nice too. Things are gonna be much better if you only will.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Some jobs go like this.

This is the result:
Actual size
And this is how it began:

The starting point …
No, the final art did not read "Slogan Goes Here." I substituted that for the real thing because this is not about the client, and I mean the client no disrespect.

This is instead a postmortem on how a project can go classically cattywampus. It doesn't happen often but each has similar symptoms, beginning with high potential for some creative heavy lifting and even fun, but ending with the objective of simply getting it done and moving on.

Factors may include, but are not limited to, multiple decision makers with competing visions, and the last-second verdict of an unseen and unexpected decision maker who trumps all previous decisions.

An odd request, is how this assignment was proposed to me: Turn this four-color illustration (above) into one- or two-color art for screenprinting onto a T-shirt.

Remove the labels, the people and the open-air cockpit, went the rest of the proposal.


As is, the artwork I was given is complicated, and re-creating it as full-art would have been a feat. I wonder if I could have mimicked it, all the metallic planes and organic shapes.

You can see where I quickly (and sloppily) obliterated the labels. Almost everyone and everything in this art had been labeled, like an old editorial cartoon.

The jet nozzles each had labels representing some favorable quality, the metaphor being that all the qualities have to work in concert for the vehicle — and the mission — to operate smoothly. The people around the lighted table represented the shareholders in this mission. The unlabeled flight crew looked at labeled screens representing the mission's optimal operation.

The front plane and the two planes on either side of the cockpit were also labeled. More desirable qualities, representing more team effort.

I'm guessing this began as clip art that someone modified for use in a campaign for this particular client.

Reducing the color illustration to line art took a bit of reverse engineering in order to keep it interesting to look at. The engine nozzles looked a bit odd in the clip art; I think the one on the left was supposed to go behind the left wing, just as the one in the foreground is, so I enlarged it, moved it over, and spaced out the other three nozzles. I told the client, who didn't respond, so I took that as affirmation.
A campaign slogan went over the top plane of the flying vehicle, which I substituted here for the generic.

I was only too happy to lose the cockpit and people, not because of the work but because the spaceship was making me a bit crazy.

I'm as much for flights of fancy (so to speak) as the next person, but this ship made no sense.

Unless the nozzles are just for show and this ship was as gentle as the old Disneyland™® Peoplemover©®, it wouldn't fly. Unprotected, untethered people, in an open-air cockpit, blithely going about their work like they're playing ping-pong in the neighbor's backyard? I don't think so.

So I closed the top, added some ribs to enhance the sense of motion and perspective, and used a new trick I learned to manipulate type. I like screenprinting, especially the challenge of depicting something in limited color, and harnessing the shirt color into the design.

I wish I could screenprint for a living or avocation; it would be hard to pry me away from the machine. Besides, the art would play big on the back of a shirt: Nice!

The client wanted black lines and something for color. I made four color options (the client has a strict color palette, so before I got specific instructions otherwise,  I played wildly with color choices).

Plus, I got a chance to add smoky flames and motion lines!

Lose the smoky flames and motion lines, the client said. Change the order of the text.

Done, and done.

Wait two weeks.

Lose the color behind the text, the client said. It's gonna run on a dark shirt. Make the lines light enough to show. Change the text.

Done. And … wait.

It's gonna run smaller now, on the shirt pocket, the client said.

Drop out some of the details, change the text. One color.


And wait.

A week later: We're going with embroidery on the pocket of polo shirts now, the client said. Someone else representing the client asked, Can you add the client logo?

The logo is an image with a bunch of words that must always be together — too complicated to run small, certainly too small for embroidery on a shirt pocket. Outlaw attempts with parts of the logo are rejected.

Are you sure? asks someone else. We're sure, answers the client.

So this:

Can't you put in the swooshy lines? someone asks.



Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What would Pat do?

After a while, I just stopped clicking …
Published after months' long absence, in response to the Paris killings …
from GoComics® Universal
Editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant, my favorite, was no longer drawing, it seemed. His weekly output had dried up at his syndicate's Website.

His last 'toon had been mid-August, a variation on the discord between Congress and President Obama, whom Oliphant often portrays as aloof, a human non sequitir.

Then, nothing. Click — nothing. Click — nothing, click — nothing.

Oliphant is 79. I figured he could be sick or have retired by design or default. I sincerely hoped not. More likely, as a painter and sculptor now ensconced in Santa Fe, N.M. and far from his old Washington, D.C., hunting grounds, he was taking a lengthy break to pursue his personal art.

After 50 years of cartooning in the United States and winner of the Pulitzer Prize (only one?!), Oliphant doesn't have to prove anything. I'm not the only one who regards him as the best in the business, eloquently savage, a master in black and white — ink and opinion — and the next true challenger may never come.

Then, in the after-madness of the killings at Charlie Hebdo and elsewhere in Paris last week, I wondered if the events had provoked Oliphant.


Jean Jullien's fast-trigger response
Up came the cartoon above. Dark and morose, unfunny, grim. Oliphant is great at dark and morose, at not needing to joke.

Is it the most striking response to the violence, the most memorable? No. My pick is Jean Jullien's (right):

The London-based French designer almost immediately produced the quintessential cartoon response, powerful and still somehow playful in its immediacy.

Both cartoonists commented viscerally to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the controversial satirical weekly which seemed intent on offending everyone. The killers took deadly offense to cartoons lampooning Mohammad, Islam's prophet.

Jullien drew, by intent or instinct, from the 1967 photo of a Vietnam War protester placing flowers in the barrels of National Guard soldiers' rifles near the Pentagon.

Oliphant simply drew from his gut, speaking out as a cartoonist, leveraging his inking mastery. By dry-brushing the edges of the killers' black uniforms, Oliphant invoked an evil, ethereal tone — is this just a nightmare? — and signaled his jagged anger.

Oliphant followed up a couple of days later with this riff of Eugène Delacroix' 1830 masterwork, "Liberty Leading the People:"

From Universal

More pencils.

As much as I love Oliphant, I think the world was by then already done with pencils as a metaphor for the unsinkability of free expression.

This vacuum of time after the killings has filled with eloquent written arguments pointing out not only (1) was this not really about an attack on free expression, but (2) this freedom we espouse is ephemeral at best and illusion at worst.

One had only to witness the world leaders who linked arms in Paris in (distant and symbolic)  solidarity with protesters elsewhere in that city, to know the hypocrisy of freedom.

Critics literally went down the line of leaders, pointing out who — whether directly or through their sovereign states — had quashed freedom of expression by jailing, torturing or killing journalists and critics. Who really knows why the United States did not send a high-level emissary, if not the president himself, but he or she would have fit right in that line.

At the same time Saudi Arabia was condemning the shootings as a "cowardly terrorist act" through its official news agency, it was beginning its weekly beating of a blogger jailed for criticizing Saudi rulers and the kingdom's strict application of Islam.

Raif Badawi was not given his second set of 50 cane lashings last week — a doctor decided he was not healthy enough from the first beating to bear up to the second, at least not yet. Badawi is supposed to receive 50 lashings each of the next 19 weeks.

I'm giving Oliphant a pass on the second 'toon, and waiting anxiously for what he, or any prominent cartoonist with a wide reach, may come up with this week.

No more pencils: Hammers.

Cartoonists need to hammer away at hypocrisy, to match the eloquent words with pointed pictures. One cartoon won't do. This hypocrisy over freedom is practically codified in our government and corporate structures — and absolved by virtue of world leaders marching in Paris. Cartoonists need to point out hypocrisy and lampoon away with both ink barrels.

They need to hammer away at those policies that create egregious plenty amid horrid want, and lead not only to the killings in Paris, but the slaughter of hundreds of Nigerians by the radical and violent Boko Haram (meaning: "Western education is forbidden"). The attention paid to Paris nearly obscured the holocaust in Nigeria.

Good cartoons can teach us, can lead us to the news that inspired the art. We need that.

We also need cartoonist to hammer away against the coming storm: The vacuum of time after Paris has exposed an undercurrent of tension over, if not hatred of, Muslims. I can't tell you how many times I've heard or read of people who equate the Charlie Hebdo or Boko Haram massacres with all Muslims, and I'm at a loss why reasoned people can't draw a distinction between a religion of 1.6 billion adherents, and a relatively small group who interpret their religion as violent tyranny.

Unless they aren't reasoned people, and their potential multitude scares me.

After intense pressure last week, for example, Duke University in North Carolina declined to allow campus Muslims to use its chapel tower to broadcast weekly calls to prayer. The university's ministerial staff had offered use of the tower as a friendly — I'll even say Christian — gesture. Duke is a private Methodist university.

But Franklin Graham, influential son of influential Christian evangelist Billy Graham, denounced the gesture, igniting a wave of complaints by Duke donors, and Duke quickly withdrew the gesture. Graham could have limited his argument to pointing out that Duke is a Christian-founded private school and within its rights to control use of the chapel. It would have been awkward to say so, but Graham went way beyond awkward and straight to hate.

He condemned Islam and its followers.

"We as Christians are being marginalized, and Islam … which is not a religion of peace," Graham told reporter Mark Becker of WSOC TV in Charlotte, North Carolina. "There's nothing peaceful about Islam at all. Just look at the Middle East and every country where Islam has the majority is in turmoil. They behead people, they rape women, they kill Christians, they burn churches."

Franklin said Muslims are taught violence in the Quran, have not denounced the killings in Paris — remarks that are remarkably easy to refute — and that American Muslims only denounced the killings because they're outnumbered.

"Violence is there and it's coming," said Graham. "And it's going to come to this country and it has nothing to do with what I say. I'm trying to warn America as to what's coming, warn Duke University. Islam is not a peaceful religion."

We are at war with Islam, he said.

Do you hear what I hear? The belltower clang of bigotry, trying to upraise one people by demonizing another? Is it not the same rhetoric that ingrained slavery into our American fabric, that laid waste to Native Americans in this country's founding and expanse, that tore Jews asunder in Nazi Germany, that imprisoned Japanese-American during World War II out of our baseless fear and sanctioned hatred?

People listen and follow this stuff, God help us.

It's past time to combat these words with pictures. Get out your hammers, cartoonists. You've got work to do. Are you free, Mr. Oliphant?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The computer ate my homework

The assignment: Transform Dorothy of Oz into a badass banner carrier for the staff of the Sacramento Republic Football Club.

She's not in Kansas anymore.

If Sacramento's new soccer team is not an overnight sensation, it's as close as you could come.

It seemed to spring whole from the soccer god's brow last summer, complete with an accessorized and organized cheering section, the Tower Bridge Battalion. "Glory Glory Sacramento" is a song the battalion sings to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

It even has a thoughtful logo that nods to the global culture of soccer.

Tapping into an eager fan base, Sacramento Republic FC quickly built a stadium, and in its inaugural season won the United States Leagues PRO championship for minor-league teams.

Its owners are making a credible pitch to the top level of the game in the United States, Major League Soccer, which wants to expand. The owners are also looking to build a bigger stadium downtown, near the new basketball stadium, where developers are reclaiming the old railyards.

Sacramento Republic's staff wanted to commemorate the club's reaching this point, by personifying an in-house motto: We're all Dorothy: Everyone plays a leading role in the office, and there are no small roles.

The new Dorothy had to sport the team colors and fit this recipe: "Rosie the Riveter meets Dorothy of Oz meets a Tower Bridge Battalion badass chick."

I punked her up. Big ruby boots with "20,231" (the team's huge opening-game attendance) graffiti'd across one of them; tattoos of California's bear flag red star on one shoulder, and "Urbs Indomita," the team's (and formerly the city's) motto, "Indomitable City," inside the other arm. Battalion scarf flying in the breeze.

I started with the sketches below until we agreed on the right pose and look. Once refined, I built the final art.

The illustration at the top is the second rendition. I was almost done with the original art (literally, just a half-dozen more little squares needed to complete the gingham dress), when my computer declared (I'm translating now), "Um, you saved this in a place that doesn't have a lot of memory, which I've warned you about before. I really can't handle this continued abuse, so I'm locking up the file. It'll be here; you can see it, but you just can't open it. Ever! Neener neener! And also, neener!"

After shouts and curses and frantic notes to my expert son — he couldn't save me, despite his expertise — I just started over, Steve Austin style: "Better than (she) was before. Better. Stronger. Faster!"

The second version didn't take as long as I feared, since I had already tried and failed, selected the colors, and ended up doing some things better than with the first iteration.

Goooooooaaaaaaaaaalllll!! The Republic marches on.

The selected pose …
Amped up a bit …
Refined sketch before final. Little bear grew claws and attitude in the final …

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mad man

Satire, that thing currently agitating much of the world, saved me from eternal damnation 41 years ago.

So far, so good.

Forty-one years ago, The Exorcist came out in theaters. I was 12, doing my best in sixth grade, despite growing certainty the devil would soon possess me.

Mind you, I had not seen The Exorcist. I still haven't, except by accident, in snippets from old-movie channel promos. The head-spinning scene, usually. After so many horrific horror movies since, The Exorcist seems quaint, like an effect small children might have no trouble seeing in a Disneyland®™ ride through Sleeping Beauty©™'s castle.

The mere mention of the movie back then, though, froze my blood.

It didn't take much: Blurbs about the movie, complete with stills, in Time Magazine … news of the film's success on the TV news … the iconic poster of a dark figure standing under the spectral light of a streetlamp.

And the devil's own fanfare, Tubular Bells. It was impossible to escape Mike Oldfield's theme for the film, especially because even the devil couldn't have kept me from my Saturday appointment with all three hours of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40."

Three hours of waiting for Bennie and the Jets to get played, finally, just to hear the rising whistle from the crowd at song's end — which was my self-imposed "permission" to leave my room and play or do chores (why do we kids think and do as we do?). But all that waiting meant I had to endure Tubular Bells.

As if from a dream, the music seems to start in the middle, echoing distantly, the single phrase on the high end of a piano repeating, driving, repeating, louder, broader, supported next by a serpentine bass line. Closer and closer, coming for me. Though the song sweetens toward the end, suggesting salvation, I was sure none would come.

Maybe it's no coincidence that a "rock" version of The Lord's Prayer, by an Australian nun, Sister Janet Mead, was chasing Tubular Bells on the pop charts. Maybe someone sensed I needed protection against dark forces, and the discordant "Our Father" was designed to cancel out the devil's relentless tinkling.

I was taking whatever help I could get.

Human Play-Doh®™, I was so malleable. I had just conquered fears of being swallowed by earthquakes — not unreal where I grew up — and seared by nests of belching volcanoes (an idea our neighborhood babysitter planted in my head, while also trying to convince us kids she was a witch).

All I knew about The Exorcist:
  • It was based on a true story
  • The girl in it throws up and talks in a monstrous voice, not her own — the devil's
  • Catholic priests fight the devil possessing her, and it's not going too well
Therefore, as a Catholic kid still attending weekly catechism, and the only person in my family at that point still going to Mass, a sinner venial and maybe grave, I was eventually going to be possessed. I was a conduit, a lightning rod.

It was the same little-kid logic I applied to wearing short sleeves whenever I could, so teachers and other grown-ups could see right away I didn't have needle tracks on my arms and therefore didn't use drugs. In case anyone was wondering.

As The Exorcist grew in popularity, I carried my doom with me, refreshed every day by the constant radio play of Tubular Bells. If I told my mom about my fate — I don't remember — she would have kindly advised I was being ridiculous, and of course I wouldn't have believed her.

On into the summer doom went with me, up to South Lake Tahoe where we vacationed regularly at my aunt and uncle's cabin. Tahoe was no paradise for a lazy 12-year-old — it was too far down the bluff to swim in the lake, and back then I didn't like swimming; too many steps for too little fun at the giant metal slides at the playland down the road.

I was too young to pad around the casinos, of course, but just old enough to look after younger cousins.

Our one unsupervised adventure was going to the corner market for candy — and there I found my salvation.

MAD Magazine.

I invested my Chick-O-Stick™® and baseball card money into my first issue that summer, and absorbed my lazy self in a new world — where cartoonists made fun of the great big bad real world.

Don Martin turned convention on its absurd jug ears and cucumber nose. Sergio Aragonés drew in the margins, hilarious at only a half-inch tall. Dave Berg was like reading Laugh-In in comic form, as he held a mirror to social and sexual politics of the time. Big stuff for a little kid.

MAD Magazine usually bookended each issue with parodies of hit movies or TV shows, with dozens of deft and dead-on caricatures by Jack Davis and Mort Drucker, and mocking titles such as "Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid" and "On a Clear Day You Can See a Funny Lady Singing 'Hello Dolly' Forever."

I studied the drawings but didn't read those parodies — too many words, and I hadn't seen any of the movies or shows to understand the jokes.

Summer became fall, and despite the revelation of MAD's satire, despite the delight of realizing life needn't be so serious and scary, my doom weighed heavier. Those damned Tubular Bells.

Then came October, high holidays for possessive demons. Hooked on MAD by then, I bought that month's issue. On the cover: A parody of The Exorcist, renamed The Ecchorcist. Mad's own gap-toothed mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, graced the cover, his likeness dressed as a devil (with pencil moustache) and printed on a barf bag. The tagline, "In this issue we gag up The Exorcist."

You … you can you do that?! And not become a double-jointed, pustule-pocked meat puppet of Satan?

I dove in.

Cartoonist Drucker and writer Larry Siegel, a TV comedy writer, unmasked the horror that had haunted me all those months, for a movie I had never seen. They pointed their fingers and laughed — laughed at the devil! — and I learned about the movie while laughing right along with them.
"Hear that vicious foul language?" the possessed girl's mother tells the priest in one panel. "See the smoke pouring out of her mouth! Have you ever seen anything like that before, Father?"

"Only ONCE!" the priest replied.

"You've met ANOTHER child possessed by the devil … ?!?"

"No, I was visiting a Public School," said the priest, "and I accidentally walked into the Girls' Bathroom."
That sort of classic MAD banter. And Drucker even recreated the iconic scene of the exorcist himself, silhouetted in the lamplight:
"Who's out there? Are you the Exorcist?" a voice from the house cries out.

"No, I'm the AVON lady —POSING as a priest. Who do you think I am?"
See the parody lovingly archived here, with the added comfort of yellowed paper.

It wasn't Shakespeare, or even Neil Simon, but it was good medicine. And it saved me, exorcising my demon. Satire saved me from irrational fear, and began teaching me to laugh at myself and regard life with a second, skeptical eye.

So far, so good.


You want a great take on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris killings from a cartoonist? Read Joe Sacco, a reportorial cartoonist and one of my cartooning heroes.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Voltaire never said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

He said, "What a fuss about an omelette!"

I found the second quote while looking for the first, and like it much better for expressing my disgust over the execution of cartoonists and editors and their police protectors at Charlie Hebdo Wednesday in Paris.

It sounds insensitive. It is, I hope you'll see, wildly appropriate.

Voltaire was defending, if a bit backhandedly, a contemporary's book, De l'esprit, in 1758. The French Parliament ordered Claude Adrien Helvétius' book burned, and him exiled from Paris, after the French ruling class and church hierarchy decided they were insulted. Man can improve himself, and become equal to his peers through education? Religion is largely ineffectual?? Indeed!

Voltaire didn't like Helvétius or his book, but supported its publication, the flowering of ideas, and found the fallout excessive, so much omelet fussing.

A Voltaire biographer 150 years later repackaged the philosopher's omelet remark into the quote we have stuck in Voltaire's throat ever since, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Until the sad and vicious and cowardly act Wednesday, I didn't know Charlie Hebdo from Charlie Brown, the comics character for whom the satirical weekly reportedly is named ("hebdo" being French slang for "weekly"). That's a sad admission from someone who frequently professes love for editorial cartooning and the power it possesses.

I have learned so much since.

Charlie Hebdo is an equal-opportunity offender, its official slogan translating to "dumb and nasty." U.S. cartoonists and satirists have nothing on the satire of Charlie Hebdo or the rest of the world, for that matter, where the risks of offense are high and real and immediate.

Cartoonists and journalists are threatened, injured and killed throughout the world; we pay attention to this incident, I'm afraid, for its brazenness and body count.

It's ironic that in the United States, with our relative freedom of expression (I said relative: you can name me many, many instances of censorship and restraint in my country), we have nothing that approaches Charlie Hebdo for raw and unrelenting provocation.

Why? I wonder. Being free(r), are we more tolerant, or just more complacent? Do we have no more big ideas to skewer, and instead tilt at the niggling nuances of wrongs in a democratic society? Do we censor ourselves as a people? Do we bow to power, to money?

Cartoonists and reporters and journalists in the United States face opposition to their work, of course, though vary rarely has it resulted in death — Denver radio host Alan Berg was murdered by members of a white nationalist group in 1984. Who else?

Two cartoonists — Jack Ohman of The Sacramento Bee and Nick Anderson of The Houston Chronicle — today described the death threats they have received over the years for their work. Typically, though, opponents' weapon of choice against published opinion is an angry call or letter, typically containing a demand that the offending commentator be fired. Sometimes those offended protest or boycott. That's how it should be: I don't like your idea, and I get to say so.

Would a journal the stature of Charlie Hebdo in the United States publish cartoons depicting Muhammad, Islam's prophet, just for the sake of doing so?

Or would we in the U.S. just shrug at a Charlie Hebdo, write our letters, make our calls, demand firing, and move on?

Taking Charlie Hebdo's cartoons together, I infer that its overarching aim is that no idea is sacrosanct, every viewpoint is open to criticism and lampoon. Its cartoonists persevere on this point, pushing it purposefully in the face of death — to the point of death.

Would we? Would I? Am I Charlie?

I agree with The Sacramento Bee editorial today:
Sometimes, more mainstream journalists and artists find themselves aligned with practitioners who walk beyond the bounds of good taste and civility. Opinion journalists are out on the end of a very long branch. The far twigs of that branch are inhabited by publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and far less secure.
Or, as Pat Oliphant commented in 1988, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Larry Flynt and Hustler Magazine's satire of televangelist Jerry Falwell:
Oliphant's version of Voltaire, anthologized in "Nothing Basically Wrong."
Oliphant's additional commentary: "A landmark decision by the Supreme Court.
If Falwell had prevailed, this book would have ended on the previous page."
Though literally surrounded by pens and pencils and ink — though passionate about cartooning — I do not see myself willing or able to carry a point as boldly as Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists. But I honor and appreciate that they do, because they extend the boundaries of freedom and keep light on the truth, where you and I can roam, arms flung wide.

And I honor those who will pick up the pen for editor/cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu), and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous), some of France's most famous cartoonists killed in Wednesday's attack.

"The real question," said diplomatic editor Julian Borger of The Guardian, "is whether anyone is going to pick up the baton, and being as brave and being as in your face as Charlie Hebdo. That is no small challenge. It is a lethal challenge."

Someone — many someones — must pick it up and keep going, keep expressing, for all of us. And we must enable them, we must help them hold the pen. We must be Charlie.

"We have avenged Muhammad!" the gunmen reportedly shouted. "We have killed Charlie Hebdo!"

But of course they didn't. Instead and instantly, they scattered its spores around the world. Acting on their bizarre and perverted interpretation of religion — Think as I, or die! — they accomplished the opposite of their goal. Charlie Hebdo cartoons zoom now around the world; controversial parodies of Muhammad proliferate.

May the spores of free expression flourish in our good soil.
Did you think to kill me? There's no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill.
There's only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.

— Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Seymour Butts

If you think the features on your iPhone™®© and Lady Gaga©®™ change at a lightning blur, clearly you have never owned a Butt Buoy®™.

This is my third such inflatable orange creamsicle-colored swim-safety device, and it's remarkably different from the second, which had changed from the first. As with computer software, consumers pay for corrections to product design flaws.

But as the kids used to say, allegedly, it's all good.

Your standard Butt Buoy©™, the facts will bear out, lasts a year and a half. Though to be honest, Butt Buoy™® No. 2 needed babying and $4.75 worth of vinyl patching to keep it floating at the year-and-a-half mark. Barely.

A Butt Buoy™© is a flotation device that open-water swimmers can tow as they work out. Not only does it help boaters see swimmers better and maybe not run over them, it includes a dry bladder for storing valuables during a swim. I didn't deem the dry bladder useful at all, until the day after someone broke into our cars while we swam at our beloved Lake Natoma.

Officially, the Butt Buoy™© goes by more genteel descriptions, such as "tow floats" or "swimming safety devices." Mine, for example, is officially known as the International Swimming Hall of Fame SaferSwimmer™ Float.

I am helping change that. With the fervor I should be spending on adult literacy or world hunger, I am convincing fellow swimmers to call these things "butt buoys.®™" A triathlete who used to swim with us offhandedly coined the off-putting name, noting how the orange blobs drooped over one's butt, like a saggy DayGlo™ diaper, as we waddled to the water, and floated above our butts as we swam. Offended at first, I soon embraced the name — give me a better descriptor! — and promulgated it to the swimming masses.

It has worked. Some other swimmers on other continents, with whom I correspond on the facebook™® "Did You Swim Today?" page call them "butt buoys©™."
(Yes, by Googling®™ "butt buoy™" — if you haven't already — you can link to a company that has trademarked the name for a line of boat marker buoys. They are literally representations of a presumably white, presumably woman's thong bikini-clad butt. Just her butt. You may choose from a variety of colors and fabric patterns — Leopard print! Checkered! — for the bikini panties.

(I'm still trying to figure out what the buoys represent. A woman frozen in mid-jackknife dive, perhaps? Someone drowning? If so, why? My first thought, though, is that this is what the bloodless, disembodied pelvic girdles will look like, bobbing in the water, when Disney®™ eventually remakes "Jaws" as a computer-animated musical. "Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged wimmen …"

(But I digress.)
No. 2 was a Butt Buoy®™ design laboratory regression, I must say. It had brittle seams, which split shortly after I bought it (though by folding down the top of the dry bladder and clipping it closed, water managed to stay out for a year and three months). From buoy no. 1 to buoy no. 2, its makers replaced the sturdy handle that tethers the waist belt with a strap welded in place with rubber grommets. Gone are the words "SWIM 4 HEALTH" and "SWIM SAFELY" in bold black letters across the top.

My new one has a small warning instead, "NOT A LIFESAVING DEVICE," and "FOR USE ONLY BY A COMPETENT SWIMMER."

The International Swimming Hall of Fame never asked me for proof.

Hoping for a sturdier version, I came upon the Hall of Fame's TPU model, which stands for thermoplastic polyurethane and sounds ominous.

A long time back, I asked the International Swimming Hall of Fame to make Butt Buoys™© brighter, maybe neon yellow instead. I may even have suggested they call their products Butt Buoys®™ instead and watch sales soar.

No answer.

Then my SaferSwimmer™ Medium TBU arrived and — so orange! I'll need my mirror tinted goggles at all times, lest my corneas peel out of my head. Do they make welder's swim goggles? Rower would see me easily if they didn't have to avert their eyes from the brilliance.

All the seams are internal, so maybe they aren't subject to cracking and tearing.

Product review: I like it. I'm anxious to see if it's hardier than the last two.

My mentioning the new Butt Buoy™® on facebook™® launched an unexpected discussion, more than the usual "likes" and two-word encouragements. One British swimmer I talk with frequently, for example, worried that such buoys would embolden people to swim in conditions for which they are unprepared.

I get her point, and have begun to understand that swimming is serious business among the general population of the United Kingdom, where many schools make swimming part of students' curriculum.

But Butt Buoys®™ and their ilk don't show up on the average consumer's radar. I was swimming open water for a year before I ever heard of one, and few swimmers I know want them because, well, they look stupid.

I'm keeping mine. One week of swimming, so far so good.

Here are a bunch of Butt Buoys®™ in action, at a lake in Florida I'd like to swim someday. The doctor here invites swimmers from around the world every day to jump in from his backyard. You have to watch it: Doc Lucky Meisenheimer is a trip.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nowhere to go

I don't know, it sort of felt like this again last year …

May we make this year better.

Oh look, it's already started. From one of many New Year's Day swims taking place around the world — including our own at Lake Natoma — I got to design the cap for one of them, in Walter Dods' community out in New Mexico:

Swimming, we swimmers have resolved, is salve. Maybe not a cure, but a medicine, stout to reset and steel you for the trials ahead. Which is why, even though Colin Hay sang in "Beautiful World:"
All around is anger automatic guns
It's death in large numbers, no respect for women or our little ones
I tried talking to Jesus but He just put me on hold
Said He'd been swamped by calls this week
And He could not shake His cold

And still this emptiness persists
Perhaps this is as good as it gets
Hay proclaimed the liberty of swimming in the sea. And it is as good as it gets.

May we make this year better.