"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 May 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hooked On Crank

Last month, two of America's more accomplished cartoonists, B.C.'s Johnny Hart, and Dave Sim, creator of the Cerebus comic book, put themselves into the Hall of Fame of cartoonist cranks. Hart ran his annual mini-controversy, the B.C. Easter strip, which gets him dropped from papers around the country for one day a year. This year's shows Judaism symbolically subsumed by Christianity upon Jesus' (possible) Resurrection. And Sim took fifteen pages of his comic book, Cerebus #265, for a double-columned prose forced march on the subject of Feminism. And let's face it, women entirely. These tirades lifted Hart and Sim into a Hall of Fame that includes cartoon cranks of the ages: Robert Crumb, Dick Tracy's Chester Gould, Little Orphan Annie's Harold Gray, Spider-Man's Steve Ditko, Jack Chick, and Li'l Abner's Al Capp.

As any Suck reader knows, we cast claims to greatness rather lightly around here, but claims to true crankdom — our bread and butter — never. Cartoonist cranks, to be sure, are nothing new. Cranks are people who get stuck on an issue and can't shut up about it. It always pops up, and always in the wrong place. You could be discussing the funny thing you just heard on the train and within seconds you're back to getting that damned marriage penalty tax cut — NOW. Cranks, they just can't let it go. The world irritates them so, what with its dimwitted Presidents, imperfect laws, and noisy kids riding their damn bikes on your lawn.

Daily comics were midwifed by one of America's great cranks, William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon who started wars, baited commies, and held Hollywood hostage for decades with a gossip columnist to get his actress-girlfriend a job. Hearst, a Harvard Lampoon alum, had a taste for building whimsical castles and ranches full of odd relics and creatures. Hearst used cartoons for comic relief from the wars and flu epidemics that raged throughout his sensationalist papers. The argument that Hearst made up the world for his readers is valid, too, but it was more obvious in the comics.

And Cartooning, more than any other art form, is the crank's paradise. It's the art of perfecting our imperfect world. Filmmakers mold reality, taking what's actually here and making us see it their way. Novelists give impressions of reality, but impressions that we have to finish with our imaginations. Cartoonists get to create everything — people, houses, dogs, bottles, mud, God — and they get to do it their way. Or, as one titan of crankdom, Mr. Rush Limbaugh, might put it, "the way things ought to be."

In the Hearst papers, Winsor McCay's Little Nemo and George Herriman's Krazy Kat fascinated audiences with their nonsense visions of brick throwing rodents and anthropomorphic beds carrying children into the palace of the Ice King (no wonder Hearst stayed with these guys long after their readers left). Even when realistic settings were used in comics, like Oucault's Hogan's Alley (fun in big city slum), it was more or less Little Rascals style gags about an upbeat poor kid — an active denial of reality. Actual ideas and issues were left to the political cartoonists on the op-ed page, where they belonged.

But by the 1930s, the novelty of the dreamworlds wore off. Perhaps it was the Depression, but audiences wanted actual stories and much more fully realized characters. And that's where the first of the true great cranks got cranky, when Chester Gould debuted Dick Tracy in October, 1931.

An Oklahoma plains kid born in 1900, Gould moved to the big city, Chicago, when he was about 19 or 20, and soon got scared stiff. Gangsterism then meant bloodbaths in broad daylight on city streets. Urban crooks like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel were front page news. But rube Gould wasn't from any sissy Little House on the Prarie Midwest. He was from the plains of Indian Wars, Bonnie and Clyde, lynchings, and later, the In Cold Blood killers, Dick and Perry. "It suddenly dawned on me," Gould once said, "that perhaps we ought to have a detective in this country that would hunt these fellows up and shoot'em down." Hearst liked hasty pudding whimsy, but right wing Chicago Tribune cartoon chief Joe Patterson dealt in reality and bought Gould's strip. Readers complained about the brutality of Tracy putting holes in thugs sans trial, but not Gould's number one fan, J. Edgar Hoover, who also had a taste for what Gould called "the hot lead route." "Why, say," Gould told folks, "If I were a cop I'd shoot them right down on the spot."

Dick Tracy is a hayseed nightmare, a petrified hick's vision of big city America. While Tracy and his gal Tess Trueheart are drawn taut and chalk white, the crooks are fat, greasy, beady-eyed, and beastly. Gould's city is full of physical mutants who look funny, who talk funny, have funny names — like Flattop, B.O. Plenty, The Brow, and the Blank. It's the kind of thing you see when Pat Robertson's 700 Club does an investigative report on raves or porn, hysteria boiled down to four panels a day and ten on Sunday. As street hoods turned into executive syndicates, "Dick Tracy" turned to 50s-60s sci-fi two-way wrist radios, moon girls, and Gould lecturing interviewers on how stupid NASA was with its clunky jet propulsion systems.

"Take my advice and build a house in the country," Little Orphan Annie's Harold Gray once told the young Al Capp, "Build a wall around it. And get ready to protect yourself. The way things are going, people who earn their living someday are going to have to fight off the bums." Annie was the strip's star, but as Gray grew wealthier and the Depression wore on, billionaire Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks became the mouthpiece for Gray's credo of hard work and self reliance. For 44 years, Gray pitted Annie against all the things that plague orphan girls — FDR's New Deal, big labor, commies, and people who got on Gray's nerves, like TK, a local pol who beat Gray out of a wartime civilian post and soon became a villain (with the same name) in Little Orphan Annie. A brilliant, Dickensian storyteller whose art conveyed subtle and moody textures, Gray let his crankiness rise up time and again. Although he never did quite reconcile how a strip about self-reliance always relied on a billionaire to bail Annie out of trouble. But then, if cranks ever pondered the built-in ironies of their absolutism, they wouldn't be cranks.

Al Capp's problem was quite the opposite of Gould and Gray. Capp's Li'l Abner, a proto-type Simpsons, had hillbilly Abner and his family (like Homer and his today) voicing the concerns of, as Capp liked to put it, "millions of American morons." It wasn't Capp's famous shift from liberal to conservative politics that made him a crank. It was his shift from funny to bitter. Capp had deftly evolved his strip from hillbilly hi-jinks into a pop-satire that allowed him the political scope that Gray got criticized for. But Capp got in trouble when he went from being a guy able to parody Gould's reactionary violence with his hilarious parody, Fearless Fosdick (with Gould parodied as Lester Gooch), to being exactly the sort of angry, humorless crank he thought Gould and Gray were. He hated these baby boomer hippies, not because of their politics per se (well some), but because they were ALL spoiled ingrates who ALL had it better than he did growing up. Vietnam? Free speech? LBJ? Nope, it always shifted back to how dumb the kids were, not how wrong they were. You can get away with anything if you're funny, but Capp wasn't funny anymore.

Cranky as the old guard could be, they rarely lost sight of themselves as entertainers who tried their best to weave their views into entertaining stories. Angry or not, this was still a job. Not so for their brethren in the low rent world of the comic book, Steve Ditko and Jack Chick.

After co-creating Marvel's Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, Ditko left Stan Lee's snappy comebacks to super-villains stories for rinky dink Charlton comics and the chance to fully express his devotion to Ayn Rand and her theories. His Charlton and independently published heroes (Mr. A, The Mocker, and Killjoy among them) love ridiculing the weak and immoral re the holes in their thinking, such as one when villain offers Ditko's boy a deal. "Ha! Ha! A 'deal'," replies the voice of justice, "The magic words of the corruptor. My deal is no deal with your kind. You betrayed your own identity as a rational being ... sold out life to anti-life! You are nothing human, have nothing human to offer, what is a nothing from a nothing?"

Ditko left Marvel at the height of his commercial success to reach his creative peak. His refusal to abandon the superhero genre makes his vision a Can't Look Away blend of intellect and the inane that no one has ever matched.

Ditko's singular vision is matched by one man and one man only, the king cartoon crank of all time, Jack Chick, creator of the born again Chick tracts. Chick's tracts are found at train stations, bus stops, laundromats, and kiosks the globe over. Designed as spiritual viruses, they sit, waiting for the right reader to come along and convert them to Christ while the underwear hits spincycle.

And yet, that in itself isn't a crank. He's driven, he's on a mission, he's got a message — but that's every preacher. Chick's crankiness presents itself within Christianity. Over and over again Chick's hatred of the Catholic church ("the Great Whore of Babylon,") and dismissal of all false religions rears up (not Judaism, though, as Chick feels history condemns all nations and people who mistreat Jews). Theories of Jesuits controlling evangelical America seem to come up all the time. "These Christians," he says, "Are always telling me what they like and don't like," which, he suspects, means they answer to Rome. It's Chick and God against the world — a crank's favorite illusion — meaning Chick can't even deal with his core supporters.

Up until the 1960s, cartoon cranks created worlds that propped up their oddball theories and inconsistencies. But the '60s brought forth another hall of famer, Robert Crumb. From the beginning Crumb sought the same as Gould and Jack Chick — a cartoon world all his own. But unlike them, Crumb's ego is tempered by his humility, his recognition that his uglier impulses toward violence and mankind in general aren't justified. That doesn't stop him from feeling it all the same, but unlike Gould, Crumb at least worries about what a nut he is when dealing with his violent sexual fantasies and racial stereotyping. Where every other cartoonist builds a world that cheats and tells half-truths in order to make sense, Crumb does the inverse. He draws himself simply talking to us, no fictional pretense at all. Instead of propping up a world on the narrow shoulders of his narrow views, he draws himself getting crushed by our real world. Oh, it's never realistic (he's often standing next to eight foot tall bird women) but his vacillations between Harold Gray Angry Man and complete spineless breakdown make his work brilliantly funny. And unlike Capp or Ditko, Crumb knows he's a crank; he just can't help himself.

Which, of course, brings us to the present. Like Harold Gray, Johnny Hart created a successful strip that he outgrew. B.C. was never meant as Christian theology, but as Hart got older and his beliefs deeper, the style and wit of B.C. as caveman sit-com weren't enough anymore. This year, his Easter strip, showing a Jewish menorah morphing into a cross the way Little Nemo's bed grows legs, doesn't even feature a B.C. character. No, Oog. Just Him. Readers might agree or not, but still, they wonder — why is Hart talking about Jesus, especially in a strip called B.C.?

As for Dave Sim, his more specific comic book audience allows him more creative freedom. But even his penchant for cranky editorials prepared no one for the crank's home run of this month's "Tangents." Meant as his final word on the subject of Feminism — a big issue for cartoons about talking barbarian aardvarks — Sim broke with his cartooning brothers by not even bothering to do his essay in comic form. Sim unloads on irritating former employees who liked to be called "assistants" instead of "secretaries" (which he sees as a Feminist term), his own celibacy ("If you leave your penis alone, it'll soon learn to leave you alone"), and the absolute zero impact of anyone else's point of view. "It's irrelevant if you roll your eyes and walk away," he offers, in a preemptive strike against anyone disagreeing.

Now, it's not important whether you agree or disagree with Sim, just so you marvel at the sheer depth of his obsession. Jack Chick cuts the Pope more slack than Sim does women. Some might say it's not women, but Feminist ideology — but what's that got to do with Sim leaving his dick alone? And it could be said that's taking things out of context, but since the only context here is Sim, not the window dressing that there's a real issue here, what difference does it make? Like Chick, Sim wants his word out. The inside back cover of Cerebus 265 makes "Tangents" a public domain property, one you should feel to distribute, as long as you do it in its entirety, unedited. Like any cartoonist crank, Sim wants it all his way.

What Sim and Hart remind us is that cartooning is still the most personal art form. And it's no coincidence that the cranks are often the best at it. They're not just hacking it out for the check. They're creating the worlds they want to live in. "I spend about 75 percent of my time in that world and 25 percent in this one," Sim has said. These are driven artists, and in order to make their point, to make that world on paper comply where ours won't, they cheat, tell half-truths, spew, rant, and play out their dramas with ideological stick figure villains and even skinnier ideological heroes. They create cartoons in the worst sense of the word. But they also create the most unique, complete visions any artist can put on paper.

Courtesy of Bertolt Blecht

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