Four-Colour Words returns from a Toronto International Film Festival–induced hiatus — if you can, catch up with Face and Trash Humpers, both of them brassy, unabashed image-making of the first rank — to examine a few important comics that have resurfaced lately. Newspaper pages have shrunk and pamphlets have retrenched to the point of insignificance during the years since these works were published. With slim-to-no chance of them reappearing in their original contexts, these comics have instead been scanned, compiled and stitched into book spines. What does it mean for them to revive now? In what new contexts do readers experience these strips thanks to this moment in publishing history? Read on, and we’ll discover the answers together.
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Bringing Up Father by George McManus (NBM Publishing)
Missouri-born cartoonist George McManus created his comic strip Bringing Up Father in 1912 and drew it until his death over forty years later. Like many early strips, its premise is uncomplicated: Maggie and Jiggs are new money; she scrabbles to gain higher ground in society, while he prefers the company of reg’lar fellers and the common comforts of their old life. The comic’s iconic images involve Jiggs, a grinning oaf in dickey and spats, sneaking away for a drink by some ingenious method, followed by Maggie, a horse-faced harridan, discovering his relapses and laying into him with a rolling pin or racks of fine china.
Reading through hundreds of these strips at once — some dashed off, many of them repetitive — reminds us that McManus was among the first cartoonists to confront the rigours of the newspaper schedule. In much the same way that Griffith and Sennett and Feuillade had to iron out efficient methods of telling stories in feature and serial films, he and his cohort (Bud Fisher, Sidney Smith) had to normalize a comics “language” that spoke intelligibly to a wide readership.
NBM’s reprint, which compiles the dailies from Bringing Up Father’s first two years — a bygone time when Maggie hurled more insults than objects — is one of three books in the publisher’s series Forever Nuts: Classic Screwball Strips. I haven’t read the others, but imagine they afford the same pleasures. First there’s the novelty of seeing old comedic “takes” played without the scare quotes: hats pop off heads in surprise, stars burst forth from banged-up brows, and exasperated folks flop flat on their backs. Next we sense the rhythms of daily life in a bygone era. Bringing Up Father reveals what the upwardly mobile wore, how they drank beer (warm, out of buckets), and how World War I affected the pattern of their daily lives.
McManus would go on to become one of his field’s finest draughtsmen, his linework so accomplished that framed pictures in the background of certain scenes acted out on their own. His early penmanship was spidery and pliable, although the presence and stillness that he imparted to figures in space was a constant throughout his career. The strips seen here are almost a century old, but still look as clean and crisp and classy as a fresh hundred-dollar bill — and seem just as ready to do hard (but happy) duty at the corner tavern.
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Melvin Monster Volume One by John Stanley (Drawn and Quarterly)
Like many big mid-century cartoonists — Kirby, Barks, Kurtzman — John Stanley’s comic books were so quintessentially comic booky that it’s strange to imagine them, and slightly odd to encounter them, in any other format. Melvin Monster Volume One, the first in a series of texts devoted to Stanley’s late career, compiles a mere three issues from his short run on the title, preserving the quick and compact experience of the original comics. (The next volume in the series, collecting some of Stanley’s work with Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, has just arrived on stands.) Drawn and Quarterly’s repackaging also nudges the material into the more traditional territory of children’s picture books, where Stanley’s sensibilities seem perfectly at home.
As with some of Stanley’s other humour comics, Melvin Monster indulges in the sort of light-hearted fright-mongering that kids adore. The stories in this collection describe a rotund, green-skinned misfit who is terrible at being a monster. Melvin wants to go to school, hates playing with his pet alligator, and dares to call his elders “kind-looking,” much to the chagrin of his Mummy and Baddy. He fits in no better in the land of “human beans,” where his nicest qualities only throw humankind’s monstrous behaviour into ugly relief. All the while, Stanley relates Melvin’s adventures in his instantly identifiable fashion, filling them with misunderstandings, silly running jokes, and quick reversals of fortune scored with cries of “Yow!”
From Stanley’s career-defining work with the licenced Little Lulu character to “Jigger,” an odd little contribution to the new, eye-opening TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, the cartoonist’s tales move along with such pleasing economy that it sometimes seems less likely his stories were ever consciously created than that they already just existed somehow. Melvin Monster, one of the few titles to which he provided both art and script, urges us to reconsider his capability with images too.
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The Complete Jack Survives by Jerry Moriarty (Buenaventura Press)
This slim, almost inexhaustible book expands upon an earlier collection of strips that mainly ran in Raw magazine in the early 1980s. In palimpsests of muted and monochromatic strokes, or bursts of uncomplicated colour, Moriarty plays with surface and depth, with solid forms and what lies beneath them, in a way that replicates the realities of everyday life. His titular everyman exists, alternately passive and resistant, in the face of the mundane, impersonal malevolence that visits us all. Jack’s TV gets poor reception, cars knock over his trash, he wakes from a nap with “both arms asleep”: we’ve been there.
As much as we identify with Jack, we might admire him even more. He confronts tests and mysteries and hardships with no bitterness or resentment; there’s only a brief frisson of chagrin, followed by something resembling grace. “Jack is the better me,” Moriarty writes in one of his terse, revealing notes. “Jack is an average man wanting to be average.” (In reality, Jack has much of the artist’s father in him, which accounts for how fiercely personal this work can feel. A couple of canvases picturing Moriarty and Jack regarding each other, reprinted in the final pages here, are plain haunting.) Jack Survives is most lifelike not in its outward qualities, in how accurately it mimics what we see, but rather in Moriarty’s ability to convey the fleeting, hazy impressions that float beneath our perceptions. With its shadows of repeated actions and too-familiar locales haunted by memories of past visits, there’s so much to read into Jack Survives because Moriarty has painted all of our lives in there, somewhere behind that scribble or beneath that cloudy mass of ink.
Jack survives, sure enough — usually outfitted in fedora and tie, always looking vaguely like someone we either know or used to know — although it’s an open question whether his persistence reveals a triumph over struggle or the simple marking of time.
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Anthony Stewart is a tenured professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Dedicated, brilliant and, he admits, a little neurotic, he is a typical academic in nearly every way. But walking the halls of Dalhousie’s ever-bright and sterile Arts Building, Stewart does not look like his colleagues. Six feet six inches tall and black, he looks — to many students, professors, and strangers, and even once to a member of the Nova Scotia Judiciary — like a basketball player. “If I had a dollar for every time this has been said to me,” Stewart has written, “I might not need a job at all.”
Named for the backhanded judgment that dogs him, Stewart’s recent book, You Must be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University, opens a conversation about how the Canadian university looks, what this means, and why the situation must change. Its text sets out to debunk the idea that some unflappable gold standard of merit guides the doling out of jobs. Stewart points to such directives as regional representation and spousal appointments as examples of how preferential hiring is already a matter of course in Canadian institutions, both academic and otherwise. As long as race is not involved, he argues, hiring qualified candidates for reasons beyond the ones printed on their CV is considered a legitimate, even necessary, practice.
Although essentially an argument for affirmative action, Stewart’s book is hardly what you’d expect. The author whisks personal anecdote and rational analysis into prose that is lucid, sophisticated, and, most surprisingly, funny. It reads as a bit of a romp — albeit a critical one — through a world that will be familiar, sometimes painfully so, to anyone who has spent even a B.A.’s worth of time in a Canadian university.
Does Canada feel differently about race relations compared to the United States? Do Canadians think we’re exempt from the problem?
Yes. And we’re wrong. Americans have a very long and very public history with respect to issues of race, so it’s been easy for us to scapegoat them and say, “They don’t have it figured out, but thankfully, look at us, we do.” These are still ongoing issues that have not been resolved in this country. As I say to everybody who will listen to me on this subject: I have a job that most people would love to have. I’m paid to read, write and think. I’m on the inside. My criticisms, specifically of the academy but more generally of the professional classes in Canada, come from somebody who is a paid-up, card-carrying member of those professional classes. So if the issues look the way they do to me, you have to imagine how they look to an eighteen-year-old kid from, say, Little Burgundy.
I see my privilege as something I have because somebody else doesn’t have it. I’m no smarter than my parents are. By fate, circumstance, good fortune, and my own hard work — and probably in that order, it’s worth saying — I’ve been put in a position to have a job that either of my parents could have done, but they weren’t in a position to take up for a variety of reasons. Even from my own family, I’m very aware that my privilege does come at a cost. And so does other people’s privilege.
You write in the book about “colour-blindness,” which we’ve typically construed as being a very liberal and progressive quality, but you argue that it requires an extremely privileged position to support.
You have to have power in order to make a gesture towards divesting yourself of it. In a lot of ways, academics are outside of the world that we write, think and talk about. We don’t run for office; we’re not competing with other business people. We are outside a lot of things, and yet we pretend that we’re part of them.
That isn’t the case for many of your undergraduate students. After their time in university, they’re going to re-enter society, as it were. And many of them are going to be in positions of power.
That’s why we owe them our best. I hope this is my contribution as a teacher, and certainly I hope it’s the contribution that You Must Be a Basketball Player makes. The next time one of my former students or one of my readers hears someone say that we’re trying to live in a colour-blind society, I hope they’ll laugh in that person’s face. Because the notion of colour-blindness is one-sided. Even if everybody I know successfully sees the world in colour-blind terms, that does not guarantee that really lousy things aren’t going to happen to me over the course of my day because of other people who have not signed on to this bargain. The point isn’t to work towards a society that only re-inscribes the privilege that was supposed to be interrogated in the first place. The point is to get better at dealing with our differences.
In a pragmatic way, what’s the first step? What should Canadian universities be doing differently?
Universities should be hiring qualified people who are going to bring to their departments, to their faculties, things that those faculties don’t already have, people who are going to provide ethno-cultural representation that either doesn’t exist or is under-represented. And that’s not hard. I’ve been keeping track, unofficially, at my own university. Just within my faculty there have been five people of colour that I know of who have not been hired [in years past]. These are completely qualified people who our faculty for one reason or another didn’t see fit to hire. If [our society] isn’t willing to talk about that, it’s going to keep happening.
When you get a flat tire, you don’t just keep driving along pretending it’s not there until it magically fixes itself. But on some level that’s what we’re doing now with this issue. We need to get past the sense of being implicated in some way. We need to start doing with issues of integration what we do with the rest of our work — we need to bring the same level of intelligence, creativity and discipline to this issue that we would to any other. The fact that the academy lags behind other professional environments in terms of diversity should be a source of constant and daily embarrassment.
I wonder if this is one version of a problem that academia routinely encounters, where theory and practice inevitably conflict. Is there a way to theorize as an occupation and still keep a foot grounded in the outside world?
The short answer is yes, it can be done. The long answer is that I think that some people see theorizing as a substitute for real commitment. Aesthetic and intellectual radicalism have never been a guarantee of political progressiveness, as anybody who’s ever thought about Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, F.T. Marinetti — and the list goes on and on — knows. The one doesn’t really prove the other. It’s important we recognize that; it’s important that we be a little more honest about who we are. [American philosopher] Richard Rorty once wrote that we have all the theory we need. Another middle or upper-middle class academic theorizing about poverty does nothing to stem the wave of poverty in the United States, was his example. I don’t know how you can argue against that position.
What’s the end goal, then?
I don’t see some sort of terminal point where these are no longer problems. People will always be different from one another in any number of ways. If you take the issue down to its absolute base and everybody is ethnoculturally the same — a picture that you can’t really paint, but let’s say for argument’s sake that you can — there would still be men and women, for instance. We would still need some sort of way to constructively, actively and, one hopes, progressively deal with our differences so that one group doesn’t oppress the other.
We accept as a given that we are always going to be different from one another, but from there we do not accept that the only way we can live with our differences is to pretend they don’t exist. That’s something we don’t do in any other aspect of our lives. We make discriminations in everything we do. We discriminate between red wine and white wine — different sorts of red wine, different sorts of white wine, even. We will always have figure-ground relationships. The reason you can see a black dot on a white background is because of their contrast. To finish that metaphor, the white background is the default, and the black dot is the exception which allows you to see both. Well, I’m here to tell you, when we start [discussing] the perceptual default in Canada, the answer is not going to be a 44-year-old first son of Jamaican immigrants. I know that I’m going to have different things asked of me than you are. More is going to be asked of me in terms of making sense of the differences in the world.
Because you’re not only being asked to represent yourself, but also everyone who looks like you?
Everyone who even remotely looks like me. In addition to that, I am also more responsible for understanding you than you are for understanding me. Goodness knows I’m not the first person to say that; James Baldwin and others already have. It is the people who are the exceptions to the rule who have to deal with these issues. What I want is for everybody — irrespective of their own ethno-cultural lineage — to take it upon themselves as a project, as what they do as human beings, to become a little more engaged with our differences.
The Toronto International Film Festival has come and gone yet again and let me be among the first to say…good riddance. We have finally said goodbye to the city’s annual week and a half of stargazing, traffic jams and tabloid journalism. For those outside of Toronto who see the glamour of the red carpet on television and fantasize about being here, rest easy, the dream is almost certainly better than the real thing. Why does everyone in this city seem to trip over their own feet once a year to try to catch a glimpse of a celebrity? The only answer that comes to mind is that the culture of celebro-centric journalism that pervades the local dailies, weekly magazines and 24–hour news channels has infected the public psyche.
Does it make Toronto a more interesting and worldly place because Oprah was here for a couple of days? Most certainly not. Did George Clooney, Matt Damon or Tyler Perry take time to experience any part of what Toronto actually is? Probably not. The celebrity attendees of the festival typically experience a city that only exists during the festival. They rarely see the outside of the Four Seasons Hotel — and when they do leave its blanched concrete walls, it’s only to eat at restaurants that are virtually off limits to the general public, walk around in the rarefied air of Yorkville (downtown Toronto’s playground for the rich and powerful) or smile blankly at a thousand flashbulbs screaming their name on the red carpet.
The real purpose of TIFF was largely AWOL this year, as scores of deserving films vying for North American distribution and press were passed over in favour of breaking news items about what Megan Fox had for breakfast. There was little-to-no appetite, however, for the business behind the scenes: as Roger Ebert reported yesterday, only one independent film (Tom Ford’s A Single Man) was purchased for distribution this year. A prime example of a movie lost in the celebrity buzz was Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar (To the Sea). This film not only tells a wonderful and heartwarming story about a father reconnecting with his son, but also raises awareness about the world’s second largest coral reef in Chinchorro, Mexico, and local efforts to have it designated a world heritage site. Alamar earned a modicum of press coverage for its dramatic content and green message, but was otherwise lost in the sea of fluff that surrounded this year’s festival.
For all of the early controversy about TIFF’s partnership with Tel Aviv filmmakers, coverage of the issue pretty much died out as soon as the stars came to town. The tempest centred on TIFF’s inaugural “City to City Spotlight,” which some thought represented a cave-in to the Israeli government’s Brand Israel media and advertising campaign. Once the festival began the issue only seemed to exist in a series of open letters and op-ed pieces. There were no mass boycotts or protests outside theatres; by all reports, TIFF’s Israeli films were well attended. What’s more, in spite of the recession that still grips this continent, the content of Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, received relatively little attention. Coverage instead focused on the girth of his celebrity (pun intended). One particularly memorable video had Moore behind the camera interviewing The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell. Both men seemed to deliberately avoid talking about Capitalism itself, with Moore going so far as to demand that his film’s poster be removed from the shot.
I could not escape the pervasive culture of commercialism while attending TIFF events. A free showing of U2’s 1988 concert documentary Rattle and Hum at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square drew some 200 rabid fans who begged off work to have a few drinks and clap along to a decades-old performance of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. These people were treated to cross-promotion at its highest level: screenings of the band’s recent BlackBerry commercial bookended the film, and there was a BlackBerry sales tent on site for anyone duly inspired to make an immediate purchase.
All that being said, I’m sure everyone’s spirits will have revived in time for next year’s festival — when the stars will burn brighter, the film schedule will be even bigger and the lines spread out ever longer.
Thanks to A.N. and P.M.
Over the past two decades, Toronto-born actor Enrico Colantoni has made a name for himself with a variety of roles in Canada and the United States, both on television and in film. These days he plays Sergeant Greg Parker on the police drama Flashpoint, the first Canadian series to be broadcast on an American network since Due South a decade ago. In The Walrus’s September issue, Jason Anderson profiled Flashpoint, which has become something of an unlikely hit for its American network CBS. Last month I went to visit Colantoni on the set of Flashpoint, where we discussed the series, the difference between American and Canadian culture, and a criminally underappreciated show about a teenaged detective.
PARIS—Being a sports fan in the 21st century is sometimes frighteningly easy.
For instance, today I bought a subscription service from the NFL that will allow me to watch every minute of every game this season, streamed live and in high definition onto my computer. Just like that, I fork over a credit card number and type some personal information and click my mouse a couple times, and presto: for the next four months, I’m in football heaven. (more…)