The Stringer. written by Ted Rall. art by Pablo Callejo. NBM Plublishing. 2021. 152 pp, $24.99
Ted Rall has certainly done his homework, and then some, with his latest graphic novel, The Stringer, published by NBM: the story of a gritty hard-working newsman who turns to the dark side. Many general observers recognize the name of Ted Rall and recall him for his audacious muckraking political cartoons. What you may not be familiar with is Rall’s own experience in the field as an independent war correspondent. Check out these titles, also published by NBM: To Afghanistan and Back, from 2003, and Silk Road to Ruin, from 2014. Rall has twice won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So, when someone with the stature of Rall writes a satirical graphic novel, it’s going to be a page-turner.
This is not the first time that Rall has teamed up with Pablo Callejo doing the artwork. Check out the bohemian memoir, The Year of Loving Dangerously, from 2009. Between Rall’s rollicking narrative and Pablo Callejo’s spare and measured style, the reader gets an immersive and truly engaging story. Rall is an idealist at heart with a passionate drive to seek the truth. This graphic novel, at its core, has an overwhelming nihilistic force at play. Rall navigates the narrative through a variety of high and low points. Like Walter White, in Breaking Bad, this is a character study about an essentially good man, in the family business of revering the Truth, only to find himself later in life striking a devil’s bargain that becomes more complicated as he must continue to feed the beast.
Ted Rall has always had a zealous approach, compelled to speak truth to power. The story of newsman Mark Scribner is a metaphor for what has happened to media in the last forty some years. In a sense, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to all of us: distracted, disrupted, disconnected. Print media has been on the decline for generations, much longer than we may care to admit. The internet and social media gobble up our time; slice and dice our information. The role of the professional gumshoe reporter has been virtually squeezed out of existence. So, when we now demand those voices “speaking truth to power,” we often simply resort to gorging on opinions we feel most comfortable with, often originating from corporations more than happy to keep us stoned on infotainment.
Alright then, someone like Mark Scribner can’t afford to be the good guy anymore. Scribner is a highly-trained media animal. If he can no longer play by the rules, then he knows of ways to manipulate and exploit news and world events–and become wealthy and famous in the bargain. It all adds up to a delicious read. This is a story fueled by zeal and tempered by two seasoned storytellers. Ted Rall’s writing and Pablo Callejo’s art brilliantly provide the reader with a brash and authentic political thriller. Highly recommended. Seek this out.
For more details, visit NBM right here.
Review and Interview: ‘Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White’ by Michael Tisserand
George Herriman, hiding his race in plain sight.
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.
Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Interviews
Tagged as American History, Art, arts, Book Reviews, Books, Comic Strips, Entertainment, George Herriman, History, Humor, Ignatz, Krazy Kat, Media, Newspapers, Pop Culture, Publishing, Race, Satire, Social Commentary