With so many editorial cartoonists absurdly contorting themselves to look identical to each other, it is interesting to consider the work of Jules Feiffer and Berke Breathed, two "comic strip" artists who work the outer edge of political cartooning. Each has a new book outpresenting exciting alternative treatment of political issues. Their work has much of the spirit I find lacking in some of today's traditional editorial cartoons.
I have never been a wide-eyed fan of Feiffer's cartoons, and his latest book, Marriage is an Invasion of Privacy, has not turned me into one, although I find his work provocative on many levels. At the core, his artistic execution troubles me. Feiffer is, of course, more a writer than an artist, but it is difficult to accept his work flatly from that standpoint. A cartoon of six or eight virtually indistinguishable drawings is visually dreary and oppressive. Six panels offers six opportunities for a new graphic statement, and Feiffer simply shrugs that off. The dance cartoons are minor exceptions, but generally, the words are where the action is. Feiffer has a delightful doodly line quality, but he ignores the potential for powerful visual expression, and I find this disturbing for someone working in an inherently visual medium.
Even so, Feiffer hits hard. His cartoons are funny only in a wry, morbid sort of way, but they have an intensity that few others match, largely due to his use of extended monologue. One cartoon depicts a newspaper reader lamenting the disastrous effect truth has had on the country's morale over the last twenty years. He then advocates the President's suppression of truth, saying, "America doesn't need any more truth. It needs to feel better." Taking more space for words, and choosing them well, Feiffer's cartoons are uniquely suited to developing a subtle argument.
Here is where Feiffer redeems his monotonous artwork. He sacrifices visual punch for the sake of amplifying a position more carefully. He is not forced to reduce complicated issues to simple sight gags with flat symbols. Consequently, his cartoons challenge the reader to consider more than yesterday's headlines. They demonstrate a distinctive and liberating way of grappling with social issues.
Another cartoonist whose work defies neat categorization is Berke Breathed, who recently published his second collection of Bloom County strips, 'Toons for Our Times. Since Bloom County appears on the notoriously conservative comics pages of daily newspapers ("the funnies are for children," don't forget), it has different demands placed on it than editorial cartoons as such do, but Breathed manages to get away with some of the most unconventional ideas the funnies have had in a long time. I think his strip is terrific.
Breathed certainly lacks Feiffer's moral unequivocation, but he seems to have more fun going about his business, and he occasionally pulls a nice editorial jab. Breathed has a keen eye for absurdity that keeps his work unpredictable, and like many of today's younger cartoonists, he feels free to lampoon both the political right and left, sometimes even at the same time: Portnoy, a woodchuck, suggests that the local "Meadow Party" nominate Jesse Jackson. "Oh poo," says Hodge Podge the rabbit, "we'd alienate half of America." Portnoy then suggests Jesse Helms, but is rebuffed. Helms would alienate the other half. Portnoy smiles and says, "Let's alienate everybody! Jesse and Jesse for '84!" The rabbit turns around and says, "Oh do shut up." Not a riveting analysis of political conventions perhaps, but it has its own little anarchistic charm.
Breathed's strip is more satirical than ideological, so it doesn not exhibit a consistent editorial voice, even to the extent that Doonesbury does. Politics is fun for Breathed, a subject to approach without reverence. Even so, the strip ends up having an eloquence all its own. Three characters watching TV debate whether the violence they see is an old "Rat Patrol" episode or a real battle on the evening news. One finally sits up and yells, "Will somebody please tell me whether I should be enjoying this or not?" Bloom County has an engaging silliness to it, but it is out for more than yuks. Breathed adds further weight to the premise put forward by Walt Kelly, Garry Trudeau, and one or two others, that the daily syndicated comic strip can be a forum for humorous political commentary.
What I find exciting about Feiffer and Breathed is the way they mold the cartoon medium to fit their personal abilities, interests, and ideas. Both cartoonists are skillful writers, and they wisely abandon the traditional cartoon wisdom of simplifying their ideas to the smallest conceptual atom. Instead, they make their cartoons expand to support their ideas.
Feiffer and Breathed draw what they want the way they want, and leave the public to fend for itself. This involves risk, for it sometimes means asking more of the reader than he might ordinarily be willing to give. Many people will not read a cartoon with more than three panels and ten words. Feiffer and Breathed make no apologies for their extra verbiage, so it is a testimony to their writing ability that so many people apparently find themselves sufficiently rewarded for their efforts that they continue to read these strips. Feiffer and Breathed are true to themselves and give justice to their ideas. I think this honesty comes across, and gives their work the life and energy it has. As readers, we learn to accept their quirks and idiosyncracies for the sake of what they have to share.
Millions of teenagers will someday awake with the sickening revelation that wearing a single glove and sequined socks does not make them Michael Jackson. Some cartoonists, involved in the same sort of charade, are in for a shock as well. Too few cartoonists are drawing from their hearts.
What Feiffer and Breathed so nicely illustrate is that there are some very different ways to go about the treatment of political issues. Rather than conform to customary conceits of what editorial cartoons and comic strips should be, these artists thrash out into new territory. The zip in their work comes from this integrity, their unwillingness to compromise, even when to do so might make their work more immediately palatable for the masses. They challenge themselves, and they challenge their readers. Its more work on both sides of the cartoon, but artist and audience alike come out the richer for it.
(c) 1984 TARGET
From another interview: One of the neat things about Bloom County is that the strip has virtually no rules at all. Cutter John rides a wheel chair loaded with animals wearing fish bowls for space helmets, and thats just the way things are. Everyone in the strip accepts it, and we readers do, too. In essence, Breathed says he's going to draw whatever he feels like and hes not going to worry about a lot of clever explanations for what happens. The readers have to take it or leave it. Its a riskier way to write, but it gives Breathed complete freedom in the world he's set up. Other strips, equally good, have more ordered universes. I suppose mine is somewhere in between the extremes.