The Breakfast Table

The Cartoon Mayor

Dear Steve:

I couldn’t agree with you more about Mayor Giuliani and his hollow showboating regarding the Brooklyn Museum controversy. While much of what passes for 20th-century modern art is absolutely horseshit–painting an entire canvas red is mere laziness, and claiming that it has meaning doesn’t make it so–Giuliani seems determined to base his whole political career on crushing the messy process that is popular culture and scapegoating people too weak to defend themselves.

As New Yorkers will recall, he launched his career by going after homeless guys who spritz your windshield at intersections and demand a buck to finish the job. OK, so they were annoying, but there are crack houses that have enjoyed continuous operation during the years that the mayor has been after the squeegee men. Then he put all the accouterments of street life out of business–newsstands, hotdog stands, street vendors–all of which gave New York a sidewalk-level buzz that separated it from your average suburban mall. Last year he attacked taxi drivers with fines for speeding–frankly, any cabby who can speed in these choked streets gets an extra tip from yours truly–and an array of nuisance regulations designed to make their lives impossible. I drove a cab for years and thought it was too hard for $150 a shift; these days you’re lucky if you make $60 for 12 hours of backbreaking through the streets of Manhattan. What kind of bully picks on guys who earn five bucks an hour?

More frightening, he’s turned Times Square and its menagerie of wonderful filth and decadence into Disney World North. The porn shops are all but gone, nightclubs find it nearly impossible to function after getting busted all the time, and now he’s stopping the rent check to the biggest cultural institution in Brooklyn. What always made New York great was its anarchic brew of mayhem and energy; Giuliani is determined to replace both with sterility and bourgeois consumerism.

OK, back to comic strips. After yesterday’s missive, a number of people e-mailed me to remind me of Scott Adams’ Dilbert–and of course, it’s a great strip. It speaks to the cubical culture in which many Americans, including me until a few years ago, spend two-thirds of their waking hours, and does so with consistently funny gag lines. Still, there’s quite a bit of repetition there, too, which I think is inevitable. How can anyone draw 365 cartoons a year for 10 years or more and have each idea be original? I think that’s why recent giants like Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Larson (The Far Side) quit after roughly a decade each–you get pretty tapped out at 3,000-plus ideas, and they had the class to recognize that. Moreover, the daily papers are constantly shrinking the space available for comic strips, which means that it’s impossible to stretch out artistically.

Ah, I’d forgotten all about editorial cartoonist Ranan Lurie, for whom I once toiled as a graphics assistant (wage: $5 an hour, no benefits, in 1987) for two months, until you retrieved my repressed memories. Fortunately, I don’t read papers where he appears, but his work is trite, appallingly apolitical, and graphically bereft of any character whatsoever. Even worse, the guy never paid me for thinking up ideas, crosshatching, etc.–yo, Ranan, with interest that comes to half the value of your Trump Tower apartment now. I need the cash for drawing lessons, man.

But the greatest conflict in cartooning is about which is more important: Ideas or drawing. It helps when a creator enjoys both a muse and a good hand (as you do, Steve), but the vast majority of cartoonists are lucky to have one or the other. Editors, it seems, lean more to the graphics side, but I think people like Larson and James Thurber prove that you can draw great cartoons with lousy art. I have yet to find a great cartoonist with bad or nonexistent ideas. In my case, I know that the art has always been my weak point, which is why I developed a highly stylized drawing style (it also helps to set it apart from the donkey-and-elephant crowd of editorial cartoonists) and why I still take drawing lessons and study everything from old woodcuts to Cuban comics. I can’t understand gifted artists who intentionally draw less well than they’re able to; it’s a form of self-mutilation. As for the ideas, either you have them or you don’t, and there isn’t much you can do about it either way.

Speaking of Peter Max, I hear he’s made sort of a comeback on the ‘70s nostalgia bandwagon–he even had some show a few years back in Des Moines, of all places.

Very truly yours,