It’s tempting to start off a discussion of the cartoons in Attitude 2: the New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists by slapping around some of the fluff put out by mainstream cartoonists in daily newspapers. It’s an easy target. Turnover on the comics page, once a rarity, is virtually nonexistent now that cartoonists bequeath spaces to their offspring. The newspaper comics page, burdened with an imagined audience of children, strives mostly for the inoffensive and the palatable and rarely prints anything more upsetting to the system than corn flakes.
The contrast with the cartoons collected by Ted Rall, himself a well-known cartoonist (Rall), at first seems enormous:
Here a NASA spokesperson says, “That meteor is going to hit the Earth in 41 days and 17 hours. I, for one, am getting fucked up.”
Or a chipper clip-art office worker says, “Once this war is over, the Iraqi people better be the freest fucking people on the face of the earth. They better be freer than me. They better be so fucking free they can fly.”
Or cartoon characters in love ponder the future of their relationship with earnest, insecure thoughts, but do so while performing oral sex. And they’re both guys.
The cartooning marketplace has produced a schism. The cartoons collected in Attitude 2 joke about things like sex, war, drugs, violence, homosexuality, race and politics. Working for the most part outside of the guidelines that bring you The Family Circus, these alternative cartoonists have found homes mostly in free arts weeklies and low circulation magazines. You’ve probably seen some of the cartoonists featured in Attitude 2. Their cartoons are usually surrounded by lists of DWM seeking YBiF, sex advice columns and syndicated astrology.
Of course, we’re willing to delve into the back pages either because the phone sex ads turn us on or the cartoons are good. Here, Attitude 2 delivers. The 21 cartoonists are each represented by eight to 10 cartoons. Any cartoonist good enough to get published is good enough to produce eight to 10 funny strips. The humor varies from comic absurdism to cynical realism, from sight gags to wordy diatribes, from righteous indignation to black comedy, but the quality remains high. The large number of cartoonists also present a variety of drawing styles. They show the influence of anime, older cartoonists and clip art. Some are quite polished while others are more amateur looking (either by intent or necessity).
Most of the cartoons are political and a few depend on a reader’s immersion into the world of pundit rhetoric. For example, Barry Deutsch’s Amptoon titled “If Housepets Were Libertarians” features a pampered dog asking, “Why should I fetch the newspaper? Can you name even one thing the humans of this house have ever done for me?” Righteous anger at Bush and opposition to his Iraq folly are common themes. Many of the cartoonists, who may or may not eke out livings from the likes of City Pages and Z Magazine, also rip into the conservative streak in mainstream media, a subject not likely to come up in the conservative mainstream media.
I’ll resist the temptation to summarize numerous cartoons. A few words can’t bring the same funny of the cartoon, but I’ll try to give you the gist of some. Do you like the idea of replacing the Little Engine that Could with “The Little Engine That Didn’t But Went Around Telling Everyone He Did” or the “Little Engine That Stayed Out Till Last Call, Missed Her Alarm Clock, And Puked On Her Shoes On The Way To Work”? Could you laugh at a cartoon of Dick Cheney having sex with a blow-up doll as he gave a speech on the environment? If you came across a cartoon named Bob the Angry Flower would you just have to read it?
Many of the contributors are recognizable. Keith Knight (The K Chronicles) publishes at Salon.com. The Onion features Max Cannon’s Red Meat. Others, especially Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, Marian Henley’s Maxine and Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man, are established figures in the cartooning world. And David Rees’ Get Your War On became a legitimate Internet phenomenon. The less well-known artists certainly deserve whatever attention Attitude 2 can bring them.
I only take issue with one cartoonist’s inclusion, Aaron McGruder of Boondocks fame. Yes, the Boondocks that’s in your mainstream newspaper. Since McGruder already enjoys a great deal of publicity — in the interview he talks about his TV and movie deals — and has his comic published all over the place and, really, isn’t as good as many unpaid cartoonists, it’s fair to ask, what the fuck?
Anyone buying Attitude 2 based on the reputation of Rall’s own attitude may be surprised by how level his interviews are. In general, the cartoonists paint a fairly harsh picture of the alternative cartooning scene. Several are on the verge of quitting and others describe cartooning as more of a need than a desire. Anyone with a good sense of humor should enjoy the cartoons; it might take someone with a noted interest in cartooning to enjoy the interviews.
Overall, Attitude 2 is a valuable achievement, collecting great cartoons not widely available and interviews with people not often asked questions. It’s like back in the heyday of indie music when you’d get a mix tape with a bunch of bands that you’d heard about but hadn’t heard. And the bands were as good as you’d hoped, clearly deserving an audience.
That brings me back to my starting point, this unfortunate schism in the world of cartooning. Clearly, there’s a place for talent in the mainstream comics page. Geniuses of the form, like Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury and Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes, have appeared there. And as Attitude 2 documents, there’s talent appearing elsewhere, denied a large audience and decent livelihood by the artistic and political conservatism of the powers that be.