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I'm better at roofing than the guy who writes "Hi and Lois."
I'm on a half-finished rooftop in New Orleans's Ninth Ward, hammering nails with my limp, linguini-like arms. My husband Andrew, who worked for his father's construction company all through high school, is scurrying up and down the roof like a monkey while I sweat and agonize, pounding each nail through each shingle in roughly the same amount of time it took Wright to complete Fallingwater. I'm still better than Brian Walker, though. Dude is slow with the hammer. Admittedly, this could have something to do with the fact that he's exactly twice my age, but I have to take my victories where I can get them. That's right, Walker. I can out-roof you. Not so smart now, are you, with your beloved legacy strips and your massive syndication?
It's Friday on the weekend of the annual meeting of the National Cartoonists Society, held in a different city each year. For the New Orleans gathering, the NCS organized this outing to help Habitat for Humanity. "Help" is something of a relative term; I'm pretty sure there was more house standing before the cartoonists showed up than there is five hours later. But the mere fact that somebody in charge thought of it—"Hey, as long as we're here, we oughta go build some houses for the poor!"—suggests that the NCS weekend is not quite the same as other comics-industry events.
The NCS is old: established in 1946, a date more than a few members can still remember. It's big: "the world's largest organization of professional cartoonists," saith Wikipedia. It's a literal old boys' club, originally created as an excuse for newspaper cartoonists to drink, smoke cigars, and do some much-needed socializing; when Hilda Terry and Barbara Shermund applied for membership in 1950, they were initially rejected because the men feared they wouldn't be able to swear with ladies present. Happily, they still swear, and the drinking has continued unabated.
There's another difference between the NCS and the rest of the American comics industry, a big one. It comes up when one of our Habitat for Humanity supervisors asks what we do for a living. "We do as little as possible for a lot of money," Brian Walker answers. He gets a laugh, but he's not entirely wrong. The NCS has money. Most of the members are older, established strip cartoonists, editorial cartoonists, and commercial illustrators. They're not starving artists like the comic-book crowd; they're experienced tradesmen who have, for the most part, succeeded in their trade. This particular NCS weekend is hosted at the Ritz-Carlton. The Reuben Awards, held on Saturday night at the Ritz banquet hall, are a black-tie affair; it's the first industry award I've attended where a Hawaiian shirt wasn't considered dressing up.
Everyone is friendly to us. It's clear that many of these cartoonists only get to hang out with fellow travelers once a year, and they're happy to meet new people in the trade. And this is a group that considers Cathy Guisewite an upstart young Turk, so two cartoonists under the age of 50 are a delightful novelty. Cartoonists and editors alike want to welcome us into the fold. They also want us to lounge around sultry patios at the Ritz, sipping lemonade, or saunter around the French Quarter looking for amusing things to eat and drink. I could get used to this. Having important people tell me I'm wonderful while deferential waiters bring me praline mousse is definitely more fun than getting snubbed by some douche with a minicomic in a leaky convention hall. As long as the crawfish pasta and pillow chocolates keep coming, this is my very favorite comics event.
After the Habitat for Humanity project, our bus driver takes us around the Ninth Ward and up to the place where the levees broke. I can't comprehend it, not really. It's like being told that Utah used to be an ocean, or this glacier traveled a thousand miles. You can memorize the fact, but you can't really imagine that all those fields of ragweed and cattails and black-eyed Susans were neighborhoods, ordinary neighborhoods like yours. Three years ago, people lived in those ruins and biked down those overgrown streets. The bus driver describes the disaster in terms of celebrities: there's the trailer where Brad and Angelina do their charity work, there's the studio where Fats Domino bravely keeps recording. It's the only way, probably, to shrink it down small enough to fit in the human brain.
But the city itself is still partying. And the NCS handles it like it handles everything: with alcohol. Reubens night starts with a long and leisurely mixer, followed by a banquet with plenty of wine, then individual parties after the awards: seven hours of open bar, all told, followed by private libations and Bourbon Street right around the corner. Although I'm not a heavy drinker myself, I do come from an Irish background, so I feel right at home amid the nigh-endless flow of booze. "While some of you were sunning yourselves on a rooftop," says Arnold Roth at the awards ceremony, "the rest of us were down in the basements, hard at work building a Habitat for Drunks."
The Reubens includes a comic-book category, but it's clearly an afterthought and I'm pretty sure none of this year's nominees show up. Sandra Boynton, whose cartoon cats and hippos were ubiquitous on greeting cards in the 1980s, receives the lifetime achievement award amid thunderous applause. Al Jaffee, of MAD
Fold-In fame, wins the Reuben of the Year, as expected. Andrew goes totally fangirl when he spots Jaffee folding his napkin. "I saw Al Jaffee fold something!" he squeals.
It takes a while for it to sink in that the hands I'm seeing, folding napkins and raising glasses, are the hands that draw the comic strips I've been reading all my life. I taught myself to read with the Sunday paper—Beetle Bailey
, The Family Circus
, For Better or for Worse
—and here are all the people responsible. "It's like Battle of the Network Stars
," says Andrew, "but for our interests." It's different from meeting comic-book artists I admire. It's almost like meeting your own ancestors. I'm not sure what this says about me, but the enormity of it doesn't hit home until I meet the guy who draws Ask Shagg
The only other thing I can remember about the Reuben Awards is that at one point Mike Peters, creator of Mother Goose and Grimm
, rips off his tearaway tuxedo to reveal a Superman costume underneath. The waiters have refilled my wine glass a few times by then, but I'm pretty sure that happens.
The NCS folks can be welcoming in part because they're comfortable; they don't see us as competition, even though there's fierce jockeying among new cartoonists for each rare slot that opens in the funny pages. Comic-book artists don't have the sugar-daddy relationship with their publishers that comic-strip artists do. The syndicates exist to sell cartoonists' work, not acquire and exploit it. And even though the NCS is not a union or trade organization, its sixty-year existence as a society connecting cartoonists to one another—and to their editors and publishers—has probably helped keep that relationship friendly, those cartoonists comfortable.
Under the praline mousse and the flowing gin, though, things are getting less cozy. One syndicate rep comments to me that his company gets 6,000 submissions each year; of those, they might look at ten new strips seriously, and they never accept more than three. There's just not enough market for newspaper comics. Newpapers fold constantly—two-paper towns are now few and far between—and the survivors don't want to sink a lot of money into anything as frivolous as the comics page. They also don't want to upset their graying readership by replacing old favorites with new strips—or, worse, new strips that might offend people. Mark Tatulli, whose macabre silent strip Liō is one of the rare breakout hits of recent years
, does a slide presentation at which he gleefully shares outraged emails from readers. The strip that generated the most hate mail: a Sunday strip featuring a dead Calvin and Hobbes. The cartoonists in the audience laugh and applaud, but the difficult truth remains: they're trying to stay relevant and entertaining in an industry where Zits
can set off a nationwide controversy by having a teenage boy use the word "sucks."
I hear the same litany from all the editors and salespeople from the syndicates. They want edgy and groundbreaking new material—another Boondocks
would be a godsend—but the papers don't. They want to take on promising new work, but they have nowhere to sell it. They want to nurture new cartoonists, but they can only offer them so many options. They all suspect newspapers are dying. What's next? The Web? Good luck with that.
On Sunday evening, the NCS leads a parade up Bourbon Street. We wear feathered masks and throw handfuls of beads to the tourists on the sidewalk. David Silverman, producer of The Simpsons
, plays tuba with a marching jazz band. MAD
legends Al Jaffee and Jack Davis, with their wives, ride at the head in a horse-drawn carriage, wearing paper crowns. The parade ends at swanky Broussard's restaurant, which the NCS has rented out for dinner and, of course, drinks. The San Diego Comic-Con equivalent of this is when thirty webcartoonists try to go to Bucca di Beppo and get turned away for smelling too bad.
Maybe it's the wine that keeps rematerializing in my glass, but, watching gray-haired cartoonists dance to a jazz combo on the red brick terrace, I can only think about how much I love comic strips. The strip is a silly little thing, hammered together out of limitations. There's no reason it should survive if newspapers die. But I love it so much. Drawing comic strips for a living, as these men and women do, is my idea of heaven, albeit only if I could also include zombies and swearing. The NCS is still strong and hearty and ready to stand another round, but I worry that the last call is coming someday. I worry about losing the funny pages.
To console myself, I eat an alligator sausage sandwich and a muffaletta the size of my head.
Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.
All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010