A dark knight of justice, a collective of funny animals and funnier humans mocking the 1980’s, a bizarre fusion of freaks and critters offering themselves up as comic oddities, the most intelligent and emotionally complex group of schoolchildren ever assembled, the human condition as viewed by seven immortal siblings, and the definitive deconstruction of the super-hero myth – what do these have in common?
They are the nominees in the Comic Book, Strip, or Character category for the initial elected class of the popGeezer Hall of Fame. After open nominations from our readers, a review by our “blue ribbon” committee boiled down the category to these six choices. As with all of this year’s HOF categories, the main consideration by the committee was to consider the impact the nominees have had on the popular culture. In order to help you out on your final ballot, we’ll look at the history of each nominee and try to isolate that pop culture influence for you.
We start this promised exploration of all our categories in the funny papers…
The first nominee is the DC Comics character, The Batman. Created in 1939 by cartoonist Bill Kane, with significant input from Bill Finger, Batman is the second key figure in the birth of the super-hero. Following the 1938 introduction of Superman, Batman appeared in Detective Comics #27 (published by National Periodicals, later DC Comics). In his first appearance, a young Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his well-to-do parents, and then dedicated his life to stopping crime. Inspired by the appearance of a bat, the young adult Wayne dressed himself in a “Bat-Man” costume to strike fear into the hearts of ”weak-willed” criminals. At the outset, Bat-Man was a hard case, carrying and using a handgun, and running roughshod over common criminals and more organized gangsters.
Along with Superman, Batman is at the center of super-hero iconography. The character has been adapted into virtually every entertainment medium, featured in and on millions of units of merchandise and clothing, and represents the “bad-as*” wing of the super-hero community – an opposite side of the coin from high-flying boy scout Superman. Batman also represents the self-made super-hero. Wayne uses the power of his own will, and significant trust-fund, to shape his mind and body into his weapon of choice. He has no “power ring”, no set of magic wings, electrified chemical bath or a birth on another planet or an island of Amazons with which to fuel his war on crime.
The character has also survived a myriad of interpretations in his 70 year history. In the comics, Batman went from roughing up mugs and thugs, to squaring off against wildly imagined super-baddies like The Joker, to getting a red-and-yellow clad boy sidekick, to going into space, to even teaming up with a masked dog. The 1960’s TV version of “The Batman” was such a campy affair – I mean, the Batusi ?? – that DC Comics repsonded in the 1970’s by returning him to his darker original nature. By the 2000’s, that darkening had been so successful, that this savagely hardcore and paranoid Dark Knight ended up rejected by his own fraternity of heroes. Today, the current Christopher Nolan film series honors that legacy of the character’s darkness. And DC Comics has cooked up the murder of the costumed Bruce Wayne, killed while fighting dark demi-god Darkseid, and a quest to find someone else to take up the Bat-mantle. The man may be (temporarily?) dead, but the icon must go on.
The second of our nominees is the Universal Press Syndicate comic strip “Bloom County“, which also includes the “Outland” and”Opus” sequels that followed the original. Berkeley Breathed created the strip while still a student at the University of Texas in 1978, and the national version arrived in December of 1980.
Using the denizens of an unnamed middle-American town, and centering on the individuals living in the boarding house of the Bloom family, the syndicated “Bloom County” used dry humor, over the top sight gags, wicked wordplay, and the anti-Garfield – a usually comatose, chemically addled Bill the Cat – to become the post-”Doonesbury“ voice of authority in satirizing the popular culture of the Reagan-era 1980’s. The odd diversity of the human cast - right-wing lothario lawyer Steve Dallas, an anxiety-crushed post-modern “Charlie Brown” named Michael Binkley, “Star Trek” fan and sexy-cool paralyzed Vietnam vet Cutter John, and ten year-old straight-man Milo Bloom – carried a lot of the political jokes and crashed headlong against the pure absurdist comedy of the non-human characters, led by the one-off joke who’d go on to become the strip’s most enduring presence – Opus the Penguin. Opus’ outsider view of the human condition made him a useful straw man for storylines mocking dirty lyrics in music, padding the truth in one’s memoirs, animal testing in cosmetics, and turned him into Breathed’s chief mouthpiece for the regular savaging of the newspaper industry itself. Irreverent, and sometimes savagely cruel to its targets, “Bloom County” still remained – above all – funny.
Opus would go on to carry the burden of the two Sunday-only strips that would follow “Bloom County” after its end in 1989 – “Outland” and “Opus“. Both were well-intentioned but lesser works, though “Opus” featured the return of a more politically-pointed Breathed and finished up with an emotionally stirring multi-week conclusion to Opus’ story in the summer of 2008.
The third nominee is another off-center comic strip, one that was perhaps the very definition of that description – Gary Larson’s single-panel masterpiece, ”The Far Side“. Published between 1980 and 1995 by the Universal Press Syndicate, “Far Side” was a celebration of the mundane and the bizarre, which is a challenge to effectively describe in words. Using a huge trick-bag of comedy tools - non-sequiturs, puns, verbal/visual dissonance, “funny” animals, human oddities, and a hugely cartoony visual style – Larson exploited the banal by laying it alongside the macabre, unusual or bizarre to evoke a laugh a day for fifteen years.
I’ll try and describe our favorite strip. A cat sits in front of a dryer. A sign is taped over the dryer’s circular door, “Cat Fud” it says. A dog is at the right of the panel, hiding in a door way.
You kind of have to have been there. “Re-runs” of the strip are still published today, and in 2003, the entire run of the strip was collected in one massive, leather-bound limited edition.
The fourth of the nominees is, quite simply, the definitive daily American comic strip of the 20th century - Charles Schulz’s ”Peanuts“, which was published by the United Feature Syndicate from October 2, 1950 until February 13, 2000. Schulz himself had passed away the day before the strip’s conclusion, February 12.
“Peanuts” needs virtually no real introduction for anyone who can read English, or any of the 21 other languages it was translated into. The cartoon adventures of the hapless Charlie Brown and his cohorts have spawned more than 50 TV specials, 4 feature films and 2 award-winning stage musicals. Merchandise of every shape and form, collecting of the strips into books, the licensing of the characters for commercial use, and the making of the daily strip itself reportedly earned Schulz more than $1 billion during his lifetime. Charlie Brown and his dog Snoopy had NASA spacecrafts named after them. The colloquialism ”security blanket” was first coined by Schulz in reference to Linus Van Pelt’s own blue blanket, which the character required at almost all times.
Even more impressive, Schulz wrote and drew the 17,897 strips that comprise the entire run of ”Peanuts” himself. No gag men, no layout assistants, no inkers, and no digital anything. It is the wholly singular work of one man, one mind, and one hand – neuroses, foibles, fears, depression and physical impairments included. The layout of four panels, the pacing, and the timing of the “punch line” – when there was one – was the framework and blueprint for virtually every daily strip that would follow it. Schulz’s impact on cartoonists as diverse as Gilbert Hernandez (“Love & Rockets”) and Lynn Johnston (“For Better Or Worse”) are well-documented and inarguable. One may feel distaste toward the unequalled size of the commercial exploitation of the property, but one cannot deny the power and massive legacy of the work itself. “Peanuts” is synonymous with the term “comic strip”.
“The Sandman“, written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by an impressive list of artistic collaborators, is our fifth nominee. This DC/Vertigo Comics series ran for 75 issues, published between 1989 and 1996. For many (i.e. the popGeezer), it is the first regularly published comic book series that can truly be called literature. Gaiman himself is one of a very few creators who developed his reputation as writer of comics only to go on to become a best-selling, critically-acclaimed and award-winning novelist.
British-born Gaiman the describes “Sandman” as, “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.“ And though that is basically the through-line of the story, it says nothing about the wonders contained in those 75 issues and basketful of stand-alone specials. The epic story concerns The Endless – Dream, Destiny, Desire, Delirium, Destruction, Despair, and Death – seven immortal siblings who are the living representations of the “natural forces” which provide them their names and natures. To quote Gaiman, with dialogue originally spoken by the character Destruction:
The Endless are merely patterns. The Endless are ideas. The Endless are wave functions. The Endless are repeating motifs. The Endless are echoes of darkness, and nothing more… And even our existences are brief and bounded. None of us will last longer than this version of the Universe.
Ahem… that’s literature, Geezophiles. Simultaneously mixed in with this heady brew are William Shakespeare, a fallen Lucifer, the muse Calliope, some feudal Japanese rituals, Thessaly (boo), the Furies, the spine-chilling Corinthian, and – most astonishingly – a who’s who from the broom closets and dustbins of the DC Universe. This amazing amalgam of the sacred and the profane, illustrated by more than a dozen iconoclastic pencillers, inkers and painters, took monthly mainstream comics somewhere it had not been before… or since. Its like will NEVER come again.
Our sixth, and final nominee, has a lot to do with why Neil Gaiman was able to do something like “The Sandman”. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel ”Watchmen“, originally published as a twelve-issue limited series by DC Comics from the fall of 1986 to winter of 1987, laid the groundwork for adult themes in comics, acceptance of comics as more serious literature by the world at large, and was the first major by-product of the “British Invasion” of mainstream American comics in the early 1980’s.
Alan Moore was writing a number of series for the British anthology comic “Warrior” when DC Comics editor Karen Berger got Moore to write for the American market. His revamp of then-stagnant horror comic “Swamp Thing” – using the birth of the “everything you know is wrong” plot device now standard issue in comics – was well-received. This led to Moore being asked to “do something” with the pantheon of low-rent Charlton Comics heroes DC had just acquired. Moore’s resulting proposal was bit much for those guys, since they’d be mostly useless at the end of Moore’s planned series. Instead, Moore was encouraged to change the players into original characters, and “Watchmen” was born.
The twelve issues are full of big ideas - alienation, defining humanity, particle physics, sexual dysfunction and healing, love and anger and mercy, pirates (!?), nuclear proliferation, Richard Nixon, the music of Nat “King” Cole, murder, paranoia, attempted rape, nostalgia, the Vietnam war, super-hero comics themselves, and space squids - presented mostly in nine-panel page layouts by artist Dave Gibbons.
It’s tough to adequately describe how big a corner “Watchmen” turned for the comics industry, both creatively and commercially. This, along with Frank Miller’s Batman story “The Dark Knight Returns“, published in the same general time-frame, established grim-and-gritty as the go-to tone of mainstream comics for the next twenty years. Both major publishers, DC and Marvel, began turning out more “creator-owned” properties, and formed “adult-oriented” imprints in the wake of “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns“. The Hugo Awards, given to outstanding sci-fi novels, changed their rules after “Watchmen” won one in the “other forms” category in 1988, so no “comic book” could do so again. Time named it one of the “Best Novels of the 20th Century”, and Entertainment Weekly put it at #13 of the “50 Best Novels of the Past 25 Years” in 2008.
Though DC’s fine-print definition of “creator ownership” would end Moore’s working for either of the “big two” comic publishers ever again, the spell had been cast. Moore had left his primary creative medium significantly changed by the time of his exit to independent publishers.
And that’s your look into the Comic Book, Strip, or Character category. Below is the section of the ballot for these nominees. You can copy that out, and use it to vote in any way you choose – a comment back here, a comment on the posting that announced all the nominees, or as an e-mail back to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can vote on each category as we post its ”Close-Up”, or just plow through all the categories at once.
To remind you, you should rank your picks from 1 to 6, with #1 being your most favored of that category’s nominees. You can also just pick a single winner in each category, which we’ll assume is your #1 choice. All ballots have to be in by 11:59 PM CDT on June 10th to be counted.
We will announce the winners on June 12, 2009, the first anniversary of popGeezer.com. Thanks for your help, and we’ll look at another category “close-up” on Friday.
|Bloom County (w/Outland+Opus)|
|The Far Side|