Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Recently I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here is a running list of the links:

Forthcoming (September 2018)
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
July 25, 2018 (Accepted for publication June 29, 2016, but never published)
An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve (literary memoir)

June 4, 2017
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis (academia, society)

April 23, 2017
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia (cultural criticism)

August 7, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology)

July 10, 2016
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult fiction)

March 6, 2016
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism, memoir)

September 20, 2015 
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture, biography)

December 27, 2014
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel)

December 14, 2014
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel)

September 7, 2014
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel)

An Abbreviated Leve: An Unpublished Book Review

Ariel Leve, An Abbreviated Life (Harper Perennial, 2017). $15.99 paperback.

Journalist Ariel Leve has produced a memoir of growing up as collateral damage in literary New York. Divorced at the dawn of the 1970s, the author’s mother, a poet dubbed Suzanne, places her own career aspirations and uncontrollable drives above the encouragement and support, and sometimes protection, of her daughter. In a complex mosaic of impressions from childhood and adult life, Ariel realizes that even in this sometimes brutal relationship, a love of words has been imparted from mother to daughter, playing no small role as tools in the author’s eventual liberation.

Composed of seemingly random snippets presented out of chronological order, the book is a highly structured argument on the effects of neglect and emotional abuse in childhood on adult intimacy. Ariel the child is at once the neglected, manipulated daughter of a self-indulgent literary diva momentarily rescued by a series of surrogate parents, and the uncertain adult Ariel groping for connection with a loving, supportive partner and his affectionate twin daughters. A third character, the author herself, is the relatively unitary mind trying her best to step back and make sense of these tortured experiences in the very composition of this memoir. 

Against this relatively concrete self-portrait is pitted the abstract maelstrom of Suzanne, the compulsively needy mother, the picture of artistic self-centeredness and unpredictable turmoil personified. Tangible only when making demands or offering timed depth-charges of love and support, Suzanne is a ubiquitous presence that has left fingerprints on Ariel’s psyche that reach to the other side of the world. Now the conflict is within Ariel herself.

The relatively few names dropped are enough to suggest that anybody who was anybody was likely to turn up at one of Suzanne’s raucous dinner parties thrown in her Upper East Side penthouse, interrupting Ariel’s homework and sleep pattern. The child pleads for famous directors, novelists, and magazine editors to go home, and tap dancers, opera singers, and Broadway composers make it impossible to rest. By the time we meet Andy Warhol, we are as unimpressed as the seven-year old who has once again been kept up well past her bedtime on a school night.

In Ariel’s waking hours, her mother’s inappropriate appearances at school and erratic behavior in restaurants are the source of even greater humiliation. Suzanne’s extra-literary reputation has preceded her adult daughter even across the Atlantic, where Ariel has fled as much to escape her mother, since become a documentary filmmaker and Broadway dramatist, as to pursue her own career in journalism. Reports of her mother’s latest scandals follow Ariel even to Bali, despite efforts to curtail communication, and Ariel dreads running into Suzanne when her itinerary brings her back to New York.

Even more virulent prove to the coping strategies Ariel has had to improvise in order to survive her childhood, now hard-coded into her brain and threatening to derail her adult efforts at establishing safe and loving relationships. Thanks to nurturing guidance provided by more stable caregivers, prolonged therapy, and sheer trial and error, Ariel comes to realize that her worst enemy is herself.

It is at this point that the narrative may seem inexorably drag on, as a relentless and increasingly erratic Suzanne only redoubles her efforts to maintain a manipulative presence in Ariel’s life and defeat her. But survivors of toxic childhoods will recognize that realization is not the same as resolution, and establishing new terms for an adult relationship, let alone effecting a clean break, with an irrepressible loved one can involve numerous false starts, prolonged effort, and discouraging relapses. A force of nature such as Suzanne is a worst case scenario.
Note: This is a book review I submitted June 29, 2016; it was accepted for publication but never run. After two years, I think it's safe to run it on my own. Although the book was well-written and even gripping, it lacked a feel-good happy ending, and didn't seem to make a major splash.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Rejoice, Pittsburgh! Rob is Back in Print!

He was a fixture in Pittsburgh print media for three decades. Every week, readers looked forward to his dependably progressive commentary to guide their lives. He was often controversial (in fact, his readership, I guarantee you, never agreed with more than 1/12th of what he had to say at any given time). But whether people perceived it or not, he had seeped into their subconscious; he was a local legend.

Then, an ill-considered overhaul of his paper left him out in the cold. Rioting nearly broke out in the streets. Longtime readers (myself included) stopped picking up the paper at Giant Eagle. If you wanted his unique, insightful wisdom (to which you had grown accustomed all these years), you had to search out his website. Or you were just plumb out of luck.

Now, after only a short time on the Missing Features List (although it seemed like months), by popular demand -- Rob is back! In print, on paper, in all his glory ... right where he belongs, and better than ever. (It may take a long time to repair the damage, but I sure hope those dastardly editors have learned their lesson!)

Art credit: Unknown.

I am speaking, of course, about Rob Brezsny, who's Free Will Astrology has been my favorite feature in the Pittsburgh City Paper, a free alternative newsweekly in these parts, for the longest time. Earlier this year, some bright light at the paper decided they would run only one of the twelve zodiac horoscopes in their print edition each week, forcing loyal readers to seek out the others online (why go to the City Paper website, when you could more easily visit Rob's own?). For most of the spring and summer of 2018, this deplorable situation persisted; I even wrote a letter of complaint to the editors and stopped picking up the paper.

Then today - lo and behold! I spotted a stack of new City Papers in the foyer of my local Giant Eagle, right next to the gumball machines. I couldn't help myself -- old habits die hard -- I found myself leafing through it, and miracle of miracles, there it was -- all twelve signs of the zodiac, as nature intended. And on paper!

I am not one to doll out compliments willy-nilly, but this newspaper reader sure is glad Rob is back! Our long, national (or is that just local?) nightmare is over!
Note: The CP reduced Rob's horoscope to a print wiki stub in March; when it brought the full feature back in print is unclear, but it appears to be fully back as of the July 18-25 issue.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Missing Link: Turn to the Next Page!

In 2000, I created the second comic-strip op-ed for John Allison at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, following the sensation that was my classic Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky riff in 1998.

Here is the original draft of the tiers:

Again, John's hope at the time was to attract other comic strip and comic book (today we would say graphic novel) artists to contribute similar features to the paper. Ultimately, John's idea evolved into the Sunday feature The Next Page, which featured local authors and artists discussing their work and culture in general.

The Precedent is Missing: A Monica Romance!

Twenty years ago I was asked to draw a special romance comic strip on the Monica Lewinsky affair for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the op-ed page by Tony Norman and John Allison. It was a simpler time: the P-G employed two editorial cartoonists and a full-time staff of three illustrators, and the exploitation of White House interns now seems like small potatoes compared to Russian collusion and trade wars.

This piece could only be a one-shot, since the paper at the time was fully staffed with artists - just none with the requisite skills to pull off something exactly like this. John's idea was to get a number of contributors to do similar strips, but comic strip cartoonists did not prove as plentiful in the region as he had hoped.

I drew a second strip for John in 2000 on the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The published version appears below, followed by the original draft. Again, John hoped to get more cartoonists to contribute strips, but couldn't find many capable of coming up with this kind of feature. Finally, a more text-based feature by local authors, The Next Page, indirectly evolved from John's idea.

Today, none of these artists are employed at the paper any longer, and the print edition will soon be cutting back to five days a week. But I'm proud to say I have contributed several book reviews for editor Tony Norman (the next one should appear in September 2018).

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Post-Post-Gazette: The New, Improved Brooding Rant!

For local readers who miss "Brooding Rant," the weekly, local-interest comic strip by Dog Slobbers (which ended with Dog's abrupt departure in the wake of revenue-strapped, web-based cutbacks at his newspaper a few weeks ago), we run the following script for Dog's most recent, undrawn installment. At the moment, Dog is just too inundated with freelance work (and requests for media interviews) to scribble it out, but regular readers should already have the template well memorized!

A previous episode of Brooding Rant, featuring Stiller, the all-purpose Everyman, and Waitress.

This installment is a bit unusual in that it is pseudo-autobiographical (which is to say, psycho-biographical), featuring Dog himself as a balding, white-haired, middle-aged man with a pointy nose (which seems to grow longer panel-by-panel, with every exaggeration, distortion, and self-serving remark this Champion of the First Amendment utters). Like all visitors to the Brooding Rant Diner, Dog is seated at the Lunch Counter on the Edge of Forever, unburdening himself to an old-school waitress (named Waitress) who perennially wields a pot of piping-hot coffee ...

[Note: We've left in minor revisions to more accurately convey Mr. Slobbers' meticulous creative process.]

[Note II: Dog is not a dog.]

The New, Improved Brooding Rant ... by Dog Slobbers

Panel 1 (Dog at lunch counter, waving arms in exasperation; long-suffering Waitress with coffee pot and stoic facial expression, listening).
Dog: After 33 years as an editorial cartoonist, I’m unemployed!
Waitress [sardonically]: What does your publicist say happened?!
Panel 2 (Close on Dog with pained expression).
Dog: First, the newspaper business went into a decades-long steep decline which I took personally ...
Panel 3 (Waitress with unmoved expression).
Dog (off): Then, political cartoonists started dropping like flies until I was virtually the last man standing

Panel 4 (Dog and Waitress in silhouette two-shot; we see the moral indignation through the tortured body language).
Dog: Then, my paper was taken over by right-wing sympathizers!
: The last straw came when they ran a "racist" editorial!
: Is that when you felt you had no choice but to quit?!
Panel 5 (Dog, nose longer, waving arms in exasperation).
Dog: No ... I continued collecting my paycheck with full dental and medical benefits for several months, as a form of silent protest!

Panel 6 (Waitress, still with steaming coffee pot -- important later).
Waitress: So, are you still going to continue drawing this weekly comic strip ... to demonstrate your commitment to the local community that supported you for three decades, and to democracy in general?
Panel 7 (Dog, vaguely offended by the suggestion).
Dog: Are you kidding? Local-interest filler material cartooning has no national syndication potential! Besides, I'm angling for a big  any kind of  book deal!
Panel 8 (Dog writhing in pain as arm of Waitress, off panel, pours scalding hot coffee from pot into his lap).
Dog: Aaaarghh! I always knew you were pro-Trump!!
[Signed:] Dog Slobbers, Post-Post-Gazette.

[More on Dog Slobbers here.]

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Who Had My Back?! Lay Off, Already!

"Thank you for all for having my back [sic]." - Quote from a fundraising page.

Of all the ink (or should I say, bytes) being spilled over the recent firing of an editorial cartoonist, allegedly for his persistent anti-Trump cartoons, there are a few obvious facts being left out. (I am not using the cartoonist's name intentionally - not to be coy, but to stay off the radar of the internet search engines - because not all publicity is good publicity. If you are reading this, you most likely heard about it through word of mouth; and I know a lot of people have been tuning in to what I've had to say).

For one thing, by all accounts, the print newspaper industry is in steep decline, and has been since the 1990s. The number of daily newspapers that have disappeared in the last decade, if anything, has accelerated. Few expect to see print newspapers to survive into the next decade (the 2020s), let alone the decade after that (the 2030s).

Furthermore, the profession of editorial cartooning has also been in steep decline. A recently laid-off cartoonist claims, " The generally accepted number by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists is that there were about 180 staff cartoonists three decades ago. Now there are fewer than a couple dozen." This is true, but at the same time, those dwindling numbers of cartoonists have also created websites for themselves - cutting their own throats, one could argue, by making their material less exclusive to the newspapers to whom they are ostensibly providing exclusive content.

There are also fewer newspapers, and while the numbers of editorial cartoonists are dwindling faster than the papers, this seems due to a canary-in-the-coal-mine effect; simply put, staff cartoonists are an extravagance that cash-strapped and advertising revenue depleted publications can ill afford.

Nonetheless, the laid off cartoonist alleges there has been a "quiet firing of over 100 cartoonists around the country over the past few decades" because editors and publishers have gotten tired of reader complaints, and that "those firings could easily have been masked as layoffs." This is plausible, as are most conspiracy theories; equally plausible is the theory I just postulated above, that editorial cartoonists are simply a luxury print newspapers can no longer afford in the twenty-first century.

What this country needs to be great again is a good ten-cent comic book (this one's from Canada).

Moreover, in the case of the newspaper that recently fired the anti-Trump cartoonist, it announced not more than a week after the firing that it would cease publishing seven days a week later this summer, cutting back to five days, and would transition into a digital-only news source as early as this coming fall. It cited continual losses in readership and advertising revenues. This suggests that simple cost-cutting may have been as much a factor in letting go the anti-Trumpian editorial cartoonist as his political incompatibility with his new bosses.

In any case, I think I would have more sympathy for editorial cartoonists and their plight if more sympathy had been shown by them all along for other cartoonists - comic book, advertising, advertising illustration, gag panel and syndicated, and so on. The fact is, while editorial cartoonists may have been canaries in the coal mine as far as the newspaper industry is concerned, they remained canaries in gilded cages a lot longer than anyone else as far as the cartooning profession more generally. People who draw for a living have been taking it in the neck for a generation or more, and as I've blogged about elsewhere, contemporary art theorists have only been shooting the wounded as our entire civilization abandons the cognitive skill that is drawing. Editorially cartoonists in general, have conveyed a general impression of being aloof and above the fray, until the water has crept up to their deck on the Titanic.

I would take more seriously the allegation that "Trump got me fired" if it weren't for these other, greater social, cultural, economic, and historical factors that have been overwhelming those of us who have tried to make a living at the drawing board during these bleak endtimes. In the case of Trump, it is difficult to argue that a cartoon in a newspaper makes much of an impact against a constant stream of "presidential" Tweets; furthermore, it is not clear that any cartoonist, fired or unfired, can contribute anything to a discourse that a thinking person can't get themselves from NPR, the New York Times, or other (so far surviving) mainstream media.

I can also attest that, for the generation now coming of age, print is already a thing of the past. I happen to teach business communication (essentially, college writing) at a local university. When I started as an instructor two years ago, there were dumps of daily New York Times at the entrances of every campus building - $3 a pop, free to students. Other schools where I had taught also had them, but they were locked in boxes and could only be accessed by the swipe of a student ID; here, they were stacked out in the open, on customized New York Times metal racks. Over the course of eighteen months, I saw a student with a copy on only three separate occasions. Three. That's three copies out of literally thousands distributed all over the campus, free for the taking. Obviously, students were too busy with their Rectangles (smartphones), and maybe didn't want their fingers smudged with black ink rub-off. (They stopped giving away the papers this past school year, but in grand academic tradition left all the empty, customized metal racks at all the entrances!) My point: you can't even give away a printed newspaper on a college campus anymore, for Chrissakes.

We can lament this situation, and certainly it is lamentable; but the objective fact is, young adults entering the grown-up world today have no idea what a print newspaper is, or indeed what an editorial cartoon is, unless you explain it to them. And even then it is an historical oddity with absolutely no bearing on their current day-to-day existence (which seems to revolve around whether and with whom they will hook up tonight or this weekend). They barely know what a magazine or a textbook is, either; this is just the state of things in 2018.

In this environment, and with my own experience of witnessing comic book cartooning and illustration in general suffer its own tribulations for at nearly a quarter century, it is difficult to muster much sympathy, let alone enthusiasm, for the various kickstarters and groupfunding efforts recent converts to DIY editorial cartooning have suddenly discovered. As much as I loathe and would like to blame Trump, and despite how natural it may feel to jump to the conclusion that Freedom of Speech itself is imperiled, there are far bigger historical forces at work than than momentary editorial whim or political fashion.

These arguments that "Trump got me fired" and pleas for pity on the basis of the First Amendment ring hollow to me, and strike me as distasteful in the extreme. If you've been on a high wire without a net all this time, and were skating on thin ice, and just didn't see it coming, that's too bad for you. Where was all your sympathy for the cartooning brethren that fell at their drawing boards in the line of duty before you? Where is the sympathy now for the reporters, columnists, and editors who were once your colleagues and still have to labor under the right-wing regime that ousted you? Where is the compassion for the pressman at your former paper who will soon be losing their jobs, none of whom will have any intellectual property at all of their own to market on the internet? Where is the gratitude to the public that supported your opinionated cartoons over several decades, rather than the overweening sense of entitlement that you are owed a living? I just don't see it.

(For a more personal, ax-grinding view of the same situation, read an earlier post.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Anatomical Archeology: Sketchbook Studies circa 1998

Here is a selection of anatomical studies I made in my sketchbook around 1998. I had been studying anatomy, principally the books of Burne Hogarth, at this point for some twenty years (1978), and would periodically brush up on anatomy every 18 months or couple of years or so. The studies here are unusually elaborate, and I recall at this point trying to "get it" once and for all (an unachievable goal!).

They are based on, in no particular order, Louise Gordon, How to Draw the Human Figure: An Anatomical Approach (Viking, 1979); Stephen Rogers Peck, Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist (Oxford, 1951); David K. Rubins, The Human Figure: An Anatomy for Artists (Viking, 1953); and Jack Hamm, Drawing the Head and Figure (Putnam, 1963). There may also be a stray bit of Andrew Loomis, culled from a Walter T. Foster edition, but I don't think so.

The fact that I was no longer interested in Burne Hogarth's Dynamic Anatomy or Dynamic Figure Drawing (Watson Guptill, 1958 and 1970, respectively) suggests I was looking for more realistic instruction than the kind that fueled the superhero studies of my teenage years (and which I tried to rid myself of in the early, exaggerated Megaton Man comics). But the oldies are the goodies, and nearly all of the titles here are old chestnuts in the genre.

As I used to tell my workshop and drawing class students, while software programs become outdated every three weeks, human anatomy hasn't changed significantly in tens of thousands of years; there is no better investment of time and effort than studying the subject.

Many newfangled anatomy books, especially the execrable Human Anatomy Made Amazingly Easy, by that cynical charlatan Christopher Hart, are worse than no instruction at all. Stick to the classics.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Looking Back in Schadenfreude '17-'18: Another Big Year of Bitter Ruminations in Review!

The Fourth of July 2018 weekend is upon us, and for me, this time of year (the mid-point of the calendar year) always calls for reflection. Big decisions tend to come upon me around this time of year, as it does between Thanksgiving and my birthday in early December; it's a time for looking forward and looking back.

The past year was momentous for me personally in how drastically the Universe seems to have intervened and taken its revenge on former nemeses of mine. What is wonderful about this is that I didn't have to lift a finger; I could just sit back and enjoy seeing those who deserved to get what was coming to them, well, get what was coming to them. As Steely Dan once sang, "No flies on me" ("Green Earrings," Royal Scam, 1974).

The Germans have an expression for this cold-blooded satisfaction in the well-deserved plight of others: Schadenfreude.

My first moment of Schadenfreude came a little over a year ago, May 23, 2017, to be exact. That's when I got an email from my alma mater grad school department with the subject line simply naming a former colleague; it just so happens this former colleague was my bête noir during the entire six years of what was already a gratuitously grueling grad school experience. This former colleague, a brilliant but highly volatile person, I once contemporaneously described to another colleague as "the most rude, obnoxious, dangerously disturbed person I had ever known, let alone been involuntarily forced to interact with over a prolonged period of time." Indeed, I took ten grad courses and seminars alongside this person, far more than any other fellow grad student; served as teaching assistant alongside this person for the same professor; and saw this person at countless lectures, Cultural Studies events, in the library etc. over an interminable seven year period (during which, needless to say, I had my own shit to do).

The last time I had seen this person, in 2014, after I had earned my PhD, it seemed that she had mellowed somewhat. We actually had coffee at a short-live Peet's Coffee location near campus, and she seemed genuinely relaxed, positive, and upbeat. Reports of such mellowing in fact were not infrequent in my circle, but as her colleagues well knew, they were usually short-lived. In any case, although from 2007-2013 she completely drove me and everyone else she came into contact with completely crazy, and routinely violated the University's "hostile environment" policy every time she set foot on campus, I was glad to know that we had at least parted on good (civil) terms.

But when I received the May 23, 2017, email, I knew immediately the worst had taken place. Just from seeing her name in the subject line of the email, and knowing that that email had emanated from my old department, I knew that she had committed suicide. Sure enough, that is exactly what had taken place.

I subsequently attended a memorial in her honor, and it was very nice. She managed to fill out an entire large church with admirers and former colleagues, some of whom I knew for a fact came close to literally strangling her years prior. I actually spoke and recalled a few funny stories that got a few chuckles. Apparently, everyone held a very similar view of this person as I did: she was brilliant but tortured; she couldn't help but make everyone around her miserable; and, although shocked and grieving, no one was all that much surprised that she had taken her own life.

And yet, I have to tell you, I chuckled in the weeks leading up to the memorial service and for some weeks thereafter, indeed every time I thought about it, all summer long. Not because I was happy that a poor soul had committed suicide; but because I thought of that entire department and how they that had enabled her, allowing her and encouraging her to violate every policy on the books, while I, an old white male, routinely had my balls busted for humbly offering an honest opinion. Needless to say, I can hold a grudge for a long time.

I complained about this disparity in my department at the time (spring of 2014), which literally and legally violated Title VII and Title IX, to the appropriate authorities. I went further, and made allusions to certain experiences on social media, which only occasioned greater reprisals and retaliation, and from some unexpected sources.

One of these sources ended up being a local editorial cartoonist (just about the last person I would expect of participating in this Caesarean clusterfuck), whose partner also graduated from my department with a PhD some years before me. This partner had, in some small way, been part of what inspired me to go back to school myself and earn my degree; in any case, she maintained close ties with her former dissertation advisor who had subsequently become the head of the department, and my boss as a "visiting lecturer." This cartoonist and his partner were apparently offended that I would speak my truth about my grad school experience and about how young, brilliant, but caustic colleagues were coddled as "favorite students" by the department while I, as I said, routinely got my balls busted simply for being an old white male. Of course, this got back to the department head, and I was allowed to finish out my semester of teaching, but never offered further teaching duties. And three other professors told me (off the record, of course) that I could forget about ever calling upon them for a letter of recommendation that would assist in my search for a tenure-track position anywhere in the Free World.

What was utterly shocking was to learn, eighteen months later, that this cartoonist and his partner, who were not in any way affected by what I had to say, were in on the whole thing from the beginning. Not only had they participated in retaliating against me in the academic realm, being among the first to tip off the department that I was speaking out of school, but the editorial cartoonist went so far as to utilize his position as board president of a non-profit gallery to badmouth me locally among legions of fellow cartoonists and former students, moving to keep me off the non-profit's board, and petulantly ordering destroyed thousands of valuable comic books I had donated.

Of course, I wasn't aware of this monumental backstabbing at the time; it wasn't until a year and a half later (the fall 2015), when the editorial cartoonist stupidly threw it in my face in a pique. It seems that I had made the grave and unforgivable mistake of offering my sage advice to the non-profit over a matter into which they had needlessly blundered and then proceeded to make worse by rude social media postings by the board VP, a jackass whose day job ostensibly involved communication. The simple fact that I had honest thoughts and opinions of my own seems to have offended what I would later come to describe as this editorial cartoonist's nigh-Trumpian narcissism.

Visual commentary by Anton.

Suffice it to say that this cartoonist and his partner's material retaliations have cost me tens of thousands of dollars of lost income annually since 2014. But of that, the less said the better.

Which brings me to Schadenfreude II and III of the past year. If Schadenfreude I was the grim satisfaction that my bête noir from grad school was no longer on this earth, Schadenfreude II was the demise of the non-profit gallery after ten years of not following anyone's advice, and Schadenfreude III was the even more abrupt demise of the editorial cartoonist's day job.

Mind you, none of these events have me doing cartwheels; nonetheless, there seems to me a certain cosmic justice and fairness (not to mention outright satisfaction) in seeing people who ignored your best advice, heaped calumny on your good intentions, and persecuted you for being honest and truthful, finally getting what they deserved.

More commentary by Anton; before you take offense at the "c-word," read about Elizabeth Bee's efforts to "reclaim" it.
Over the winter, the non-profit shuttered its doors, and press releases to the contrary, it remains to be seen if it will ever have a fixed address again (this is somewhat problematic for a gallery).  Let me just not in passing that I have since been told a number of insider tidbits about the organization, which suggest the defrauding not only of an insurance company but a court of law in regards to a divorce proceeding, of which I have no direct knowledge. (But I can tell you, had I been on the board, I would have blown the whistle on these assholes for sure, if only because they are supposed to be representing my art form, and I'm also a taxpayer.)

More recently, in just the past few weeks, the cartoonist was let go from his newspaper.

This latter point deserves further elaboration. It has been reported nationally that the reason the cartoonist, who leans left, ran into loggerheads with the new, right-leaning publisher and editor of the paper over ideological difference. (I have noted elsewhere the paradox of the cartoonist's anti-Tumpian politics but perfectly Trumpian arrogance, egotism, and hypocrisy.) However, reports in recent days inform us that the paper will soon suspend print operations and become internet-only; this bit of information confirms what I already tended to half-suspect: that the parting of the ways had as much or more to do with simple cost-cutting as it did with the tiresome and repetitive cartoons that added nothing to our political discourse, or two what people of average intelligence could already conclude about our current political environment on their own.

It is worth noting that this cartoonist, whom I once considered a friend and colleague before I learned of his malicious personal and professional betrayal, was the last person I knew in town who labored at a drawing board with pencil and paper, and still received a steady paycheck thereby -- with a W2 at the end of the year. (Every other cartoonist I know locally or nationally has long been a part-time freelancer; even full-time staff positions of editorial cartoonists -- the last cartoonists or illustrators of any sort still standing -- now number no more than a dozen or two nationally.) 

In fact, I don't know of anyone, personally or by reputation (although I suspect there may still be a handful) who draw on inclined surfaces using old fashioned analog techniques (paper, pencil, ink, and other miscellaneous art supplies), and still appear on a payroll as an active full-timer for doing so. Staff artists of any sort are simply a dying breed (along with the two-century old print media that made the profession possible).

As of this writing, the particular editorial cartoonist to whom I am referring is still in town (no other major metropolitan newspaper seems to care to add to its red ink by hiring a staff editorial cartoonist these days, politics aside). He still provides cartoons for his syndicate (which cannot possibly have been the lion's share of his revenues), and has told media outlets that he is currently swamped by freelance requests. I hope for his sake the inundation keeps up; he's going to really need to hustle to make up for whatever he was making in his luxurious, overpaid and now dematerialized staff position. 

In the meantime, he's now just like the rest of us: a part-time freelancer, a wretched existence if there ever was one. (I wonder if he's learned any humility? I rather doubt it.) The upside is, for the moment at least, he gets to go out as a hero, plausibly appearing to have been fired for his politics, instead of the publication's hemorrhaging of red ink. In the long run, he's essentially beginning his retirement ten years before he probably planned (and one can only hope he wisely invested that lucrative inheritance from his neurosurgeon father.)

By its very nature, Schadenfreude is cold comfort. When your enemies get what's coming to them, it doesn't necessarily make you whole. I would have preferred not having had to endure a brilliant, talented, but dangerously disturbed scholar back in grad school; I would have much preferred that such a distressed soul would have instead figured out a more positive path forward, without doing harm to themselves; I would have preferred not having suffered unlawful retaliation by a coalition of vengeful hypocrites including the very people who granted me my PhD and some of my former cartooning colleagues; I would have preferred having a non-profit gallery that was still healthy and active in the community and region, preferably one that wasn't so blatantly corrupt and self-serving; and I would prefer to see editorial cartoonists still gainfully employed with medical, dental, IRAs and stock options automatically deducted from their regular paychecks, instead of scrounging for freelance jobs like the rest of us.

But none of those things seem to have been in the cards. Thus, I can only take some measure of comfort this July Fourth weekend, as I look back on the previous twelve months or so, in the knowledge that the Universe, the Cosmos, the Creator if you will, has some greater sense of fairness and justice than I, one that is beyond my mere mortal comprehension.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Curtains: Ten Years of the Toxeum Draws to a Close

I considered myself a friend and supporter of the Toonseum up until the fall of 2015. But like
most other people who offered friendly advice or constructive criticism to the institution over the years, I have since been branded a Toonseum "detractor."

But this wasn't always the case. In 2009, I donated some 10,000 comic books and prints (the entire backstock of my self-publishing imprint, Fiasco Comics Inc.), textbooks on cartooning and comic book history, and original art to the Toonseum, as well as the drawing board tabletop my working mother had bought me in 1979 that I used to draw nearly all of my published comics.

In the years that followed, I could be relied upon to contribute auction sketches to the Toonseum and pitch in with other forms of volunteer participation (including the suggestion of an "Artists' Alley" at the 2014 "Smackdown" fundraiser). Don't bother thanking all the little people, guys.

However, on at least four distinct occasions, the Toonseum a) approached me with an idea or project that they had devised; b) enlisted my enthusiastic commitment; c) utterly failed to follow up or follow through on their promise in any way, shape, or form; and d) never found so much as the professional courtesy of informing me that they had changed their minds.

I have described one of these projects in detail here, which would still be making them money.

I don't think my experience was in any way unique, except perhaps that I was dopey enough among local professional cartoonists to let it happen to me repeatedly before I finally had had enough.

This weekend, the Toxeum -- excuse me, Toonseum -- will be closing its Liberty Avenue gallery doors for good, promising (threatening?) "pop-up" exhibits and other forms of programming around town during a "curtains drawn" period, whatever that means. (It sounds like a haunting -- ghosts pop up at the most inopportune times, don't they? And the Toxeum has surely given up the ghost.)

Needless to say, this has come as no surprise, at least to someone who knows firsthand how the Toonseum has treated its friends and supporters.

But rather than go on grinding my ax (I would also like to sharpen a few knives, but they're still sticking in my back), I'd rather commemorate the decade of disappointment that is the History of the Toonseum with a little anecdote I've never shared:
Dr. Don has taught drawing, cartooning, art and architectural history and other subjects almost continuously since 1993. This was a flyer for an offering that did not attract enough students, but it sure was an attractive design!

In the summer of 2014, I was approached by two board members about joining the Toonseum board (another of the four incidents alluded to above). I didn't even fully realize the Toonseum had a board; in any case, I cautioned them that I had a mind of my own, but they insisted that a PhD would look spiffy on their letterhead. I agreed, and a day or two later, followed up with a statement of my priorities, as I saw them, for an arts-educational institution like the Toonseum:
My personal "broken record" talking points on behalf of the comics artform in general include: 1) all-ages education (drawing generally and cartooning in particular, along with informative/scholarly lectures); 2) comics as a female-friendly hobby for creators/readers (and not just a boys' club); and 3) building bridges to the fine art/gallery/museum world and academia. I see all these goals as meshing with the Toonseum's mission and all the great things Joe has already accomplished to date, and am quite excited as you envision future growth for this local and national treasure (private email, July 25, 2014).
Obviously, I never was invited to join the board (and the story of how I eventually learned of this decision is a knee-slapper for another time!). But I still happen to think there is an opportunity in the Pittsburgh region for an arts organization committed to drawing and cartooning.

I just don't believe that organization should be called the Toonseum, or be in any way descended from it.