On Satire

Political cartoon by Michael de Adder

Cartoon by Michael de Adder

One of the trends I’ve been watching the past few months is the decline of mainstream media’s support for political cartooning and satire.

If satire is doomed, or society is doomed.

It just so happened I came across a bunch of different articles in the same day that seemed to me to coalesce into a dark picture of one aspect of what’s happening in our society. A newspaper cartoonist in Canada got fired for doing a cartoon critical of Trump, another in Pittsburgh suffered the same fate. First Look Media will no longer support the comics site The Nib, The New York Times announced it will no longer publish political cartoons, and ATT/Warner/DC cancelled Mad Magazine.  More recently, a political cartoonist for the Farm News was fired for being critical of large farming corporations.

Admittedly, satire has been becoming harder to do all the time. Half the time, headlines from the Times or the Post sound like they were written for The Onion. At the same time, doing satire has become increasingly dangerous. You can lose your job, or extreme cases, even get assassinated, for satirizing the wrong person or subject.

Although the Brunswick Times claims cartoonist de Adders’ Trump cartoon was not the reason they fired him, he says he was told Trump was “a taboo subject.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette claims they fired cartoonist Robert Rogers because he “wouldn’t be edited,” which Rogers says means he refused to do cartoons promoting Trump. The Times doesn’t explain its decision to quit publishing political cartoons. Warner/DC claims Mad isn’t profitable any more, and First Media gives the same excuse for cutting the Nib loose.

Maybe it’s true that Mad or the Nib weren’t profitable, though most journalists covering these stories have suggested that “not profitable” in both cases doesn’t mean they weren’t making money, just that they weren’t making the enormous profits that the company’s other publications were.

But editorial and political cartoons’ primary worth isn’t the profit they generate, but what they bring to the public discourse. As The Nib’s contributing editor Sarah Mirk told Longreads, editorial cartooning is “not something where you get a high financial reward on your investment — what you get back is cultural change. For people who just care about money, maybe they shouldn’t be funding journalism.”

It looks to me like both the Times and DC are acting the way most of big media – or at least big print media – is acting, caving to the culture of never giving anyone offense and never calling out those in power. They are simply too cowardly to continue giving a voice to satire.

But even if I’m wrong about their motivations, these are still bad moves for our cultural health. If, both as individuals, and as a society and a culture, we can’t laugh at ourselves, our leaders, our institutions, our human foibles and stupidities, we’re in deep trouble.

Thankfully, SNL hasn’t been cancelled yet, and both Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert look to be pretty secure in their jobs. Print media could take a clue from some television media, and grow some friggin’ balls.

Humor and satire can cut through the bullshit, down to the bone and the core of the issue. Naturally, some folks don’t care for that. As Nanny Ogg says in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories, “When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth.”

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Authorial Intent

I liked Lindsay Ellis’ video on “Death of the Author,” and John Scalzi’s blog post on the subject, and it reminded me of a story. Check ’em both out, I’ll be here when you get back.

Lindsay Ellis: Death of the Author

John Scalzi:  Death of the Author… Maybe

Back? Good, okay, here’s the story…

Years ago, I was hired to paint a cover for Fred Saberhagen’s omnibus The Complete Book of Swords. The publisher gave me the manuscript to read, I read it, and the Art Director and I agreed that the cover should depict the “one sword to rule them all,” as it were. Problem was, though this was a super-special sword made of unobtanium (or whatever, I forget the term), Fred had never actually described the thing.

So I called the A.D. up and said “I want to be sure and get this right, but I have questions about how this sword looks that aren’t answered by the text. Can you put me in touch with the author, so I can ask him about it?” The A.D. sez “Absolutely not! We have a strict rule about that, no contact between author and cover artist.” Hunh.

Okay. Well, it’s not as if I didn’t know a few people in the field, so through mutual friends, I managed to get a message to Fred (this was in the days before email). He responded with his phone number, and an invitation to call. So I called him. We had a nice chat about various aspects of the book, and writing and publishing generally (the guy was a prince, very gracious, full of interesting stories). Eventually, I got around to asking about the details of this sword.

And Fred goes, “Gee, I dunno, I never thought much about that. What did you think it should look like?”

(Yeah, if you went to the links above, you saw that coming, right?)

He liked my ideas. So I painted the cover. Art Director loved it. Fred called me up to say he loved it. I got paid. But much as they loved it (and kept reissuing it with the same cover for years), that publisher never gave me another assignment. Made me wonder if they’d found out about my end run around their “no contact” rule.

Coda:   Years later, after Fred had passed, his executor got in touch with me to say that it was one of Fred’s all-time favorite covers, and to enquire how much I would charge to allow them to use it on the memorial website they were doing for Fred.

I told him they were welcome to use it for free, all I wanted was credit.

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The Frankenstein Chronicles

The Frankenstein Chronicles is often described as a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but it’s not that at all. Set a few years after the publication of Shelley’s book, it’s the tale of detective John Marlett (Sean Bean), a Bow Street Runner (predecessors of the Metropolitan Police), investigating the case of a body washed up from the Thames which appears to be a failed attempt to replicate Frankenstein’s experiments – a body sewn together from several corpses. Though it at first this seems to be more or less a straight mystery, before the end of the first season, it has devolved into a horror story that delves into the same questions and issues as the book for which it is named; questions about the nature of god, life, and what constitutes humanity.

Overall, I thought The Frankenstein Chronicles was quite good.  The production values are excellent, the period well portrayed. I admit, I wondered about the inclusion of a black man among the Bow Street Runners, but a little research proved this was entirely possible.  Kudos to the writers and director for giving Constable Joseph Nightingale a fully fleshed out character that actor Richie Campbell could sink his teeth into, complete with his own story arc.  And for not flinching at portraying the sort of racism such a character would encounter.

Richie Campbell as Constable Joseph Nightingale in The Frankenstein Chronicles

Richie Campbell as Constable Joseph Nightingale (Rainmark Films)

Where the series does stretch it a bit is the compulsive inclusion of famous people from the period. There’s Mary Shelley, of course, and husband Percy, as well as Frederick Dipple (arguably the original model for Victor Frankenstein), but there’s also Sir Robert Peel, Charles Dickes, William Blake, and Ada Lovelace, and probably a couple I’m forgetting. Some were indispensable, given the premise of the show, but others seemed shoehorned in just for a name check. At least Dickens goes by “Boz” through most of the series, so if you didn’t know his pen name, he’d be just another young journalist.

Sean Bean as detective John Marlett in Rainmark Films' The Frankenstein Chronicles

Sean Bean as John Marlett (Rainmark Films)

It must be said, Bean’s character does several times makes frankly stupid mistakes that no streetwise cop would make, even in 1827. Marlett is no Sherlock Holmes, or even Sergeant Cuff – he’s overly emotional, exploding when he ought to be restrained, close mouthed when he ought to be communicative, behavior that might be acceptable in your average Joe, but which rings a bit false in a character who is supposed to be, if not brilliant, at least canny and crafty.  By the second (final) season, Marlett has become more victim than avenger, and when he wins out, it’s more by luck than craft.

Yet that’s also one of the endearing qualities of the series. There are no superheroes or supervillains here, just deeply flawed human beings, stumbling and bumbling along, protagonist and antagonist alike, relying as much on luck as skill. And it’s 1827 – things often don’t work (Marlett’s pistol falls apart at inopportune moments, for instance), medical science is in its infancy, forensics basically doesn’t exist, and everyone’s flying by the seat of their pants.

All in all, it’s an entertaining series, with terrific production values, some excellent acting, and decent, if occasionally flawed writing.

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Bernie Wrightson: Elegant Lines

Bernie Wrightson (1948-2017) was an illustrator and comic book artist whose pen and ink style was quite unique.

Frankenstein pen and ink illustration by Bernie Wrightson. Victor Frankenstein seeks parts for his creation in a tomb.

Victor Frankenstein shopping for parts – Bernie Wrightson

Wrightson began his career as an illustrator for the Baltimore Sun, but within a couple of years went to work for DC Comics, mostly working in horror comics like House of Mystery and later Marvel books like Chamber of Darkness and Tower of Shadows. Working with writer Marv Wolfman, he co-created Destiny, a character who would later appear as one of the Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. His greatest impact on comics, however, was probably the creation of the Swamp Thing with Len Wein. In the 70s, Wrightson went to work for Warren Publications, whose larger format black and white horror comics were a more appropriate venue for his elaborate ink style than color comics had been.

Pen and ink drawing by Bernie Wrightson depicting Frankenstein and his creation in the lab

Frankenstein’s creature confronts him in his laboratory. Bernie Wrightson (Click to enlarge)

Wrightson’s real masterwork, however, came in 1983 with the publication of his illustrated edition of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. It was a labor of love on which the artist had spent seven years producing 50 gorgeous large scale pen and ink dawings (some of which I’m including here). Frankenstein was a perfect match of style and subject, as Wrightson’s intricate inking style mimics the appearance of the steel and wood engravings used in publications of the period. Wrightson clearly drew inspiration from golden age illustrator Franklin Booth (1874-1948).

Illustration in pen and ink by Franklin Booth.

Franklin Booth

As a young man, Booth, according to legend, did not realize the pictures he was copying were engravings, and taught himself to laboriously copy their style in ink. (For those who aren’t familiar with the process, the original artists for publications back in the day usually did tonal drawings, which would then be turned over to engravers, who reproduced those tones by the use of parallel and hatched lines, engraved backwards directly onto a metal printing plate).

Below, a sampling of illustrations from Wrightson’s Frankenstein (Click to enlarge):

Wrightson’s illustrated Frankenstein includes an introduction by Stephen King and from Wrightson himself. The illustrations themselves are not based upon the Boris Karloff or Lee films, but on the actual book’s descriptions of characters and objects. For the 25th anniversary of the first edition in October 2008, a new edition was prepared and released by Dark Horse Comics in an oversized (9″ x 12″), hardcover format, scanned from the original artwork, when it could be tracked down.

Wrightson was also a fine painter, though his paintings were far rarer than his ink work. In 1976, he produced a portfolio of paintings illustrating Edgar Allan Poe stories.

In later years, he would work with Stephen King, illustrating Creepshow, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Stand, and Wolves of the Calla. He contributed concept art to the movies Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, Spiderman, George Romero’s Land of the Dead, Frank Darabont’s Stephen King film The Mist, and to Joss Whedon’s Serenity, for which he designed the Reavers.

Amazon has Wrightson’s illustrated Frankenstein in two editions:

The 2011 Dark Horse Edition  and the 2020  Gallery 13 Edition.

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The Emperor’s New Spam

Recently, I’ve been getting spam – the Chinese equivalent of the famous Nigerian bank scam, where someone has left me a gazillion dollars, and all I have to do to receive it is give the scammers access to my bank account.  These emails come from someone named “Hong Wu”.  The name seemed to ring a bell somewhere in the back of my brain, and after I’d received several of them, I heard a voice in my head saying “Marks of the Hong Wu?  That is a vexed question.”

Ah, yes, then I remembered… that was Edward Hardwicke’s voice, from the Granada Sherlock Holmes episode “The Illustrious Clent”, wherein Holmes (Jeremy Brett) sends Watson (Hardwicke) disguised as a collector of rare Chinese pottery to draw the villain, Baron Gruner (Anthony Valentine), away from his study, while Holmes searches it for evidence.  Thanks to the client of the title, Holmes has sent Watson along with an actual piece of Ming pottery to intrigue the villain.  In the film, the Baron becomes suspicious, and questions Watson on several obscure points about pottery. Watson’s done some boning up, of course, but  couple of days of study does not a true expert make.  Still, he’s doing pretty well, holding his own, until the Baron asks his opinion about “the marks of the Hong Wu.”  When Watson, confused by this, temporizes, calling it a “vexed question,” Gruner replies, “I should think so.  There are no marks on the Hong Wu,” and Watson’s imposture is discovered.

Watson (Edward Hardwicke) and Baron Gruner (Anthony Valentine).

“Marks of the Hung Wu? that’s a vexed question.”

Curious now, I checked Wikipedia to discover that Hong Wu (aka Hungwu, given name Zhu Yuanzhang, 1368–1398) was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China. His era name, Hongwu, means “great military power”.

Zhu Yuanzhang, aka Hongwu (1328 – 1398). Painting in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan.

Why a long dead Chinese emperor would need to run the modern equivalent of the old Spanish Prisoner con is, paraphrasing Watson, a vexed question.  I suppose the Communists have probably confiscated whatever monies he had stashed away all those years ago.  I hate to tell him he made a bad choice sending his email to me – even if I weren’t wise to the con, there’s hardly enough money in my bank account these days to make it worth his pilfering it.

Sorry, Hong Wu, better luck next time…

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Fire Aloft Cover Reveal

The collaborative steampunk novel Fire Aloft, written with my old friend (and editor on Darkwalker) Rev DiCerto, is now available for pre-order. Here’s the cover:

And here’s a larger version of just the illustration:

Fire Aloft is what I’d call “hard” steampunk – there are no sorcerers, werewolves, zombies or vampires (sparkly or otherwise), just technological advances based, so far as we could, on real science. And air pirates.  After all, what’s a steampunk tale without air pirates?

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The Paper vs Pixel Debate

Recently, someone pointed out this article to me:

E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead

It’s a longish article, and if you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, the headline gives you the gist.  And it kicked up a lot of heated debate on social media between the advocates of ebooks and those who cling to real paper books.

Me, I’m what they call a hybrid reader, a fan of both ebooks and paper, so I don’t have a horse in this race.  But what this article misses is that outside of the Big 5, the AAP’s 1,200 publishers are mostly the Big 5’s many imprints, along with textbook publishers and university presses (both of which are more heavily print-oriented).  And it barely acknowledges that the Big 5 have been inhibiting their own ebook sales with their artificially inflated prices.  Ebook sales are not declining – the ones that have gone missing from AAP’s report have migrated to buying from small, indie, and self-publishers that AAP doesn’t track.  From all the reports I’ve seen, those publishers are still seeing a steady increase in their sales.

Of course, the article condescendingly admits that the sales may have moved to “cheap and plentiful self-published e-books,” a snotty, perjorative phrase that unfairly condemns a whole class of creators.  That some inexpensive ebooks are just crap goes without saying – but so are many paper books.  Sturgeon’s Law exempts no medium.  Which sounds discouraging, until you consider that along with condemning the vast majority to the dung heap, it also suggests that you will always find ten percent at the top of the heap that’s brilliant stuff, pure gold, no matter what venue, genre, or medium you look into.

Digital or traditional, it’s all the same to me.  I love getting my hands in actual paint, and I also love using my Wacom and painting with pixels.  It’s not about the medium, it’s about the content.  All art is essentially a form of communication, and what you have to say is far more important than what tools you use to say it.  To my mind, anything that lets you make a mark, define a form, write a message, is a valid medium, whether it’s a burnt stick against a cave wall, or a chisel on a wax tablet, a quill pen or a keyboard, a bristle brush against canvas, or your finger directing effing pixels projected in the air.

When we get into debates about ebooks vs paper, or photoshop vs oil paints, we’re missing the point.  As creative artists, we’re stepping further away from each other over the less significant aspect of what we do – the media we use – and missing the connection we should be making over the more important aspects – what we do with it.  Chevy or Ford, Mac or PC, practical or CGI, pen or keyboard, if you can make it work for you, who cares?  All that stuff is irrelevant next to where are you going, what are you writing or creating?  Does it move the reader or viewer?  Does it engage them, and provoke a deep response?

McLuhan was wrong – the medium isn’t the message.  The medium may influence and condition the message – but only so far as the creator allows it to.  In the end, content trumps form.

I think real paper books and oil paintings both will always find an audience, even if that audience is smaller than it was in previous times.  They can’t be “killed” by ebooks or digital art, any more than radio was killed by TV, or painting killed by photography, or oral storytelling killed by writing.  All those mediums of expression survive today, and manage to thrive, even though they are no longer the primary medium they once were, and they thrive on a smaller scale.

If ebooks come to rule the market that mass market that paperbacks once owned, as seems likely, the “threat” in that is not to the existence of paper books, or even (despite the suits and bean counters’ fears) to the bottom line of the big corporate publishers. The only real threat is to the big corporation’s business model.

It’s my theory that when the dust settles, we’ll find that while ebooks may eventually replace paperbacks, as paper books become more rare and specialized, we’ll also see a resurgence things like the illustrated books made famous by Wyeth and Pyle and the golden age illustrators.  When content is downloadable at a click, the value in a paper book shifts from being primarily the value in the content, to it’s value as an object, as a physical thing you can feel and smell and, well, taste, I suppose (okay, I guess, if licking books is your thing, who am I to judge?)  Publishers of paper books, in order to stay competitive, will have to leverage that thing-ness, that physicality.  Some may try including scratch n’ sniff panels, or holograms, but those would be passing fads.  The logical thing is to produce well crafted, beautiful objects with quality bindings, great illustrations, artistic type design.

Of course, I could be wrong, and history would suggest that I probably am.  Most people who’ve had the stones  to make any sort of prediction about this kind of stuff have eventually been proven wrong, why should I be the exception?

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On Digital Art

I’m sometimes amazed, considering some of the work that’s out there, that some people – most notably traditional media artists, but others as well – continue to disparage art that’s produced digitally. While I wouldn’t hold myself up as the best example – I mean, I think I’m pretty good, but there are many out there who are far better than me – my work is created exclusively on computer these days. Granted, I have a background in traditional media, but some of those brilliant digital artists out there have never touched an actual paintbrush to real life canvas – or, to be more accurate, many of them had never handled traditional media until well after they mastered the digital. It’s worth noting that most of the best of them have, at some point, chosen to experiment with traditional forms just to expand their experience and skills.

Digital media offers opportunities that traditional media does not, and this is true, I think, in all the various art forms. My best friend and co-author Rev is also a musician, and though he still plays an actual guitar, he’s also recording using some of these digital techniques, doing stuff he could never, ever have done without a computer, at least not without spending outrageous amounts of money (which is true of many musicians). I know filmmakers who can produce professional looking results that would have cost millions, or needed a big Hollywood production company behind them, without the computer.

Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there, and the democratization provided by digital technology puts the ability to create and disseminate work in the hands of people who have no idea what they’re doing, filmmakers with zero sense of cinematography or story, artists without a clue about anatomy or composition, writers who publish through Amazon who don’t know their arse from a hole in the plot. But this technology also puts these possibilities in the hands of those who do know what they’re doing, and and provides far more options than they ever had before.

Sturgeon formulated his famous law (“90% of everything is crap”) in 1958. That it’s still true today should be no surprise. Computers and the internet aren’t responsible for this. All they’ve done is increase the total volume of both crap and valuable work, and made all of it more accessible.

What I’ve noticed is that every time there’s some technological innovation, there’s a flood of that crap that seems to overwhelm the good stuff, as both the clueless and the clueful glom onto it – but eventually it settles down. Because with notable exceptions, the shit tends to sink and the worthwhile stuff floats to the top. I see it happening right now in self publishing. Initially, you couldn’t find anything good for the ocean of badly written books with terrible covers. Today many of the self and indie published works are rivaling what the big publishers put out, in both the quality of the writing and that of the packaging. Sure, there are a few bad writers who’ve hit it big this way, but no more of them than the bad writers who are traditionally published.

If you’re passionate about your art (painting, writing, music, whatever it is), you’ll work your butt off to get better, to learn what you need to learn to improve and perfect your work. Not only does the digital world provide you with tools to do the work, it provides tools to get better at it. There are some great online courses available, some of them free, some moderately expensive, all certainly cheaper than (and many just as good as) brick and mortar schools that would put you in debt for life. I’ve yet to meet an art director who gave a shit where I went to school if they liked my portfolio. I don’t believe most editors care about your degree if they love your novel. I don’t know much about other equivalent fields, but I suspect that outside of areas that specifically require degree programs like medicine or law, the same principle applies.

Every day, I see artists working on computer produce incredible work, as good, or in some cases better than, the ones I know who work in traditional media. The technical skills may be superficially different, but the aesthetic skills remain the same. Bottom line for me: I don’t care what your medium is, it’s the result that counts.

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Inktober: Timothy Dalton Sketch

malcommurray

Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcom Murray

in Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

One final Inktober piece, done in a new painting program I’ve been experimenting with called Rebelle.  It provides natural media style tools that rival those of Corel Painter.  Still getting used to it, but I think it’s going to be a very useful tool.

I’ve never been a fan of Timothy Dalton, but I thought his performance as Sir Malcom Murray was excellent.  And this character is a fine example of the way series creator and main writer John Logan finds inventive ways to re-tool the elements of his Victorian source material.  Rather than do the obvious thing, and haul in Professor Van Helsing as the leader of this misfit band who oppose these supernatural horrors, Logan turns to a character who naturally must have existed, but is never mentioned in Stoker’s Dracula – that of the father of Mina Murray Harker, the heroine of the novel.  His absence from the original story Logan explains by making him an explorer and adventurer, probably modeled loosely on Sir Richard Francis Burton.

I find this particularly admirable because with a single character decision (“Make him an explorer/adventurer a la Burton, Speke, Livingstone, and their like”), Logan solves several problems at once;  he provides a reason for Sir Malcom’s absence during Mina’s ordeal and kidnapping, and for the guilt about that which drives the man, and it provides the kind of background and experience which prepares him for each aspect of the pursuit of Dracula; for the violence of it, the acceptance of the supernatural aspect of his quest (he’s seen such things in his travels), and the obsessiveness required to follow through on what would appear to be a Herculean task.

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Inktober: Eva Green

Ives_01

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

Moving from the classic to the more contemporary:  I started watching Penny Dreadful with scant hope that it would be any good.  The premise of the show, bringing together the characters of the classic Victorian horror stories (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Jekyll & Hyde, Dorian Grey) had been done several times before, from the Universal films of the 40s, to the abysmal Van Helsing of a few years back, and it’s almost always been done badly.  Watching Penny Dreadful, I was pleasantly surprised.  Everything about it was top-notch, from the writing to the acting and production values.

I’ve always admired the work of Eva Green, and her turn as the protagonist of Penny Dreadful, the cursed psychic/witch Vanessa Ives, was outstanding.

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