Category Archives: Washington Post

See You In The Funny Papers!

When I was in junior high — heck, even high school, if I’m being honest — I had dreams of being a newspaper cartoonist. Hey, it didn’t seem that unreasonable at the time — I was (and kinda still am) a fairly respectable cartoonist (though my repertoire is admittedly limited) and I read nearly every strip out there, even those I considered snoozers like Mary Worth or Garfield.  Further, I wasn’t naive about it: I knew selling a strip took more than just the ability to write and draw.  I did research into distribution and syndicates, I knew who the editors of the major comic pages were, and I read up on how folks like Charles Schulz, Jim Davis, and Berke Breathed had gotten their starts.  I knew  it was an uphill battle, but I at least had a plan.  Sort of.

Anyway, the real problem I ran into was . . . well, producing a comic strip is really hard.  Not the drawing part of it, necessarily — though working in the confines of panels is a challenge — but it’s tough to stare at those blank squares and come up with a joke or, if you’re really ambitious, establish a compelling storyline. I would draw comic strips I thought were rip-roaringly clever or funny, then proudly show them to my brother or friends, certain they would laugh uproarously at my witty combination of words and pictures. Unfortunately, more often than not the response was: “I don’t get it.”

Lesson learned: any strip you have to constantly explain is not a good one. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t cut out to have my own comic strip. 

But maybe you are.  And this is where it gets interesting.

The Washington Post — yeah, the Washington Post — is looking for America’s Next Great Cartoonist.  If you’ve got a strip you’ve been working on — maybe it’s on a blog, or you produce one for your high school or college newspaper, or maybe it’s just camped somewhere in the back of one of your private notebooks — the Post wants to see it (the only thing they’re not taking is editorial cartoons, sorry).  Your work will be judged by a panel that includes Pearls Before Swine’s Stephen Pastis, Cul de Sac’s Richard Thompson, and Garry Trudeau. And if I really have to tell you who Garry Trudeau is, you have no business entering the contest.  Just sayin’.

The winner gets to have his or her work appear for a month in the Post‘s comic section (that’s the Style section to us locals), get to consult with the judges, and generally get a good push out the door and down the path toward a career as a professional comic strip artist.

The contest is open until 5:00 p.m. on June 4.  What are you waiting for? Go here and get all the information you need.

A Dose of Reality in High School Reading

Over in The Washington Post, crack education writer Jay Mathews laments the absence of non-fiction on high school “required reading” lists.  “I am not dismissing the delights of Twain, Crane, Buck, Saroyan and Wilder,” Mathews writes. “But I think I would also have enjoyed Theodore H. White, John Hersey, Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton if they had been assigned.”

He’s right.  I can’t remember ever being assigned any non-fiction in high school, apart from in a journalism class where a wise teacher made us read any number of books of our choice by journalists (I chose Harry Reasoner’s Before The Colors Fade and Barbara Walters’s How To Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, both of which are long out of print.)

Independently, I read my share of non-fiction — usually books on pop culture, such as the history of films, television, theater, or comics (I remember drawing audible laughter from a biology teacher of mine when he turned over the book I had laid face-down on my desk to reveal The History of Little Orphan Annie) — but as far as required reading went . . . not so much.

Mathews isn’t certain what to make of this. Perhaps, he offers

…high school English departments’ allegiance to novels leads impressionable students to think, incorrectly, that non-fiction is a bore. That in turn makes them prefer fiction writing assignments to anything that could be described by that dreaded word “research.”

Could be.  Non-fiction, on the face of it, seems a bit too much like doing research for a term paper — which is about the only time students are required to pick up anything beyond the fiction shelves. Non-fiction seems intimidating, academic, and boring.  (True, sometimes it is — except most of the time, when it isn’t.)

Mathews closes by asking for suggestions on non-fiction books that high school students might like.  I think I’d try to keep things short — John Adams, for example, is one of the finest books out there, but at 750 pages, its length probably makes it unwieldly for your average class — and point students toward books like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Stephen King’s On Writing.

What books would you recommend?

Irving, Key, and the National Anthem

In last Friday’s Washington Post, columnist Michael Kinsley grumbled a bit about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” deriding it not only for being unsingable, but too full of warfare and unwarranted jingoism:

The melody is lifted from an old English drinking song. The lyrics are all about bombs and war and bloodshed — and not in a good way. By the penultimate verse, the song has turned really nasty: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” In the first verse — the one we generally sing — there is only one reference to any value commonly associated with America: “land of the free.” By contrast, “home of the brave” is empty bravado. There is nothing in the American myth (let alone reality) to suggest that we are braver than anyone else.

The entire piece is right here.

Apart from stridently disagreeing with his last sentence, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for “The Star-Spangled Banner” myself.  For one thing, I share a birthday with its lyricist, Francis Scott Key, one of only two really cool people — Herman Melville being the other — with whom I share a birthday.  When I was about six or seven years old, my Mom ordered for my brother and me one of those “Read About Me” books — where your parents would send information about you to a sort of print-on-demand operation, which would then incorporate all the information about you into an otherwise generic story — and when it got to the page where the narrator discussed famous people with whom you share a birthday, I was stuck with Francis Scott Key.  My brother, meanwhile, got Groucho Marx, a tidbit I was always somewhat jealous of.

Anyway, that’s one of the reasons — although a silly one — that I’ve always admired Baltimore’s unlucky lawyer, caught behind the lines when the shelling started at Fort McHenry.  He may have written a song few people can sing, but at least he had the good taste to be born on August 1.

To my later surprise and delight, however,  I learned there’s also a Washington Irving connection to Key’s poem.  In 1814, Irving was two years into his term as editor of Analectic Magazine. It was a job he was growing increasingly weary of — he particularly hated being a literary critic — but despite his lack of confidence in his abilities, Irving had remarkably good taste when it came to finding new work to publish in his magazine.  And in the December 1814 issue, only three short months after the bombardment of Fort McHenry,  Irving reprinted Key’s lyrics — a four-stanza poem he had titled “Defense of Fort McHenry” — in their entirety.

Irving was not only delighted with Key’s lyrics, he thought they were a fine example of one of his own pet causes: Americans writing their own patriotic poetry, rather than merely rewriting or adapting British poems, as had been the habit.  While Key set his poem to the tune of a popular British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” the lyrics themselves were new and uniquely American. And as Irving presciently noted in his introduction to Key’s lyrics, “we think that their merit entitles them to preservation in some more permanent form than the columns of a daily paper.”

How right he was.  Key’s lyrics — and the drinking tune to which they were set — officially became our National Anthem in 1931.  Hard to sing?  Sure — but listen how glorious it can sound when done right.  Here’s Whitney Houston kicking off the 1991 Super Bowl, at the height of the Persian Gulf War:

Have a good weekend!

That’s What I Want…

U.S. Forces Nine Major Banks To Accept Partial Nationalization,” reads the front page, stacked-and-centered banner headline on today’s Washington Post — making this about the fifteenth day in a row we’ve seen an enormous banner headline in a newspaper that isn’t normally known for such drama above the fold.* And as I do every day, I shake my head at the headlines, make a quick scan through the lead stories, and eventually lose interest before the stories make their jumps to the inner pages. I just don’t get it.

As I tell my coworkers every day, I wish I understood all this stuff better, because I know it’s important. Yet, I feel completely lost.

Until now.

Today I was pointed toward this website: The Money Meltdown: Everything You Need To Know About the Global Money Crisis. Site creator Matt Thompson — an online journalist and blogger — says he established the site as a way of pulling together “useful, authoritative, and comprehensive information about our current financial crisis in an accessible way.”

As someone completely baffled by finance, banks, and stock markets, Matt’s page is just what I needed — and maybe you’ll find it of some use as well. Click here to go get it.

* Okay, I’ll amend that to add, “at least not when it comes to finance and the stock market.” We see our share of big headlines when it’s politics, not finance. We leave that to those snooty New York newspapers….