Who Do You Think You Are, Diamond Jim Brady?

I've heard the name "Diamond Jim" Brady since I was very small. I just knew it meant someone with a lot of flash and easy money. No idea how my family would have heard of him; their references to "Coxey's Army" made more sense.
When I could read my animal books for myself, his name would show up in chapters about the passenger pigeon and the bison, as an example of the gaslight glutton who would eat whole boxcars of birds, or dine on buffalo tongue while the rest of the animal went to waste.
In my adult life, he shows up in Jim Harrison's food writing as a troubling, ambiguous figure-- was he glutton, or gourmand? And I still use his name to admonish the young against flash spending (do as I say, not as I do), although it turns out that it was Robert Mitchum, not Diamond Jim, who told his new bride, "Stick with me me, Baby, and you'll be fartin' through silk." (She did.)
Now there's a very entertaining article by some guy named David Kamp sorting out fact from fiction in the case of Diamond Jim's legendary gluttony. I didn't know that Diamond Jim kept company with Lillian Russell. Or that the Urological Institute at John Hopkins is named after him. Being as I am already fond of reading about La Belle Époque in Paris (let me recommend Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals by Cornelia Otis Skinner), this inspires me to track down a book by H. Paul Jeffers called Diamond Jim Brady : Prince of the Gilded Age.

Bring the Cute: Panda Diplomacy and the Charm Offensive

In a better world of my own design (I’m avoiding the word “utopia”—you see how that worked out for Thomas More) conflicts between nations are resolved by pandas, snow leopards and lemurs. (There are other components to my plan: reseeding the primeval forest from Maryland to the Mississippi, restocking free-range bison from the Mississippi to the Rockies, a guillotine on Madison Avenue as a warning to publicists, and secluding Dick Cheney and his Eurasian counterparts in Death Valley or the Rub' al Khali, where they can fight their own goddamn wars to their hearts content— but hey, it’s Christmas, so in the interests of Peace, I limit myself to the Cute Animal Problem.)

After years of negotiations, China is making a gift of two giant pandas to Taiwan named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan. (Please note that on this blog, we will distinguish from the red panda, Ailurus fulgens.)

This is the first success after ten failed attempts at panda diplomacy between China and Taiwan since 1992. Even their names were problematic-- Taiwan wanted pandas named "Independence" maybe "Friendly Harmony", but "Reunion" and "Unify"--? Fahgeddaboutit! See, if the pandas are on "loan" from mainland China, per international wildlife statutes, then Taiwan is being treated as an independent state (yay), but that also means the taxpayers of Taiwan will have to pay Beijing for the privilege of having pandas (boo)... but if Taiwan accepts the pandas as a "gift" from the mainland, then that implies Taiwan is a province within China, and not an independent entity.

I thank the Baby Jesus that this was all about cute little fuzzballs (see illustration) and not about bombs or anxious refugees. No panda skipped a meal or worried about hidden training camps. I'm a Confucian, not a utopian; it's all about incremental changes, chipping away for a lifetime at the stones in my passway until they turn to pebbles and someday, Lord, turn to sand. As Melissa Etheridge said when deciding to let Rick Warren say the goddamn prayer. "Maybe if they get to know us, they wont fear us." There is a paranoid streak in Taiwan that won't give an inch to the pandas-- beware that cuteness, for it hides the dragon's claw-- but it was interesting to me that Taiwanese editorials blame the KMT for selling them out, since it was the Kuomintang that started all the trouble in the first place-- Sterling Seagrave's The Soong Dynasty is a good place to start on our dysfunctional relationships in that part of the world. Still, and I cannot say this enough, better to be sniping about pandas than about invasion plans and missiles.

Mock if you will, but more serious thinkers than me prefer cultural exchanges-- cute critters, Peace Corps volunteers, well-digging, road building, Habitat for Humanity and NGOs like Doctors without Borders-- to the bullying, bombs and puppet dictators we’ve used instead of diplomacy for the last fifty years. Richard Vague, for example, believes that sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will not solve anyone’s problems: “…That is the last thing we need to do… The trouble is that we could defeat the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the warlords in Afghanistan again and again, but unless someone provides a viable economic path forward for the broad citizenry there, it won't matter. They'll just come back."

Here's to a year when the ascendant voices will not be those of the hysterical and the violent, but the protectors and the sharers and the builders. "Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too." Just a world where we can all smile at unconcerned, roly-poly pandas, joy without logos and without fear of either the madman in the crowd or the imperial satellites above.

How, How Did This Not Sell a Million Copies? Number Two in a Series

Porky Pig, singing "Blue Christmas".

Emily Dickinson Kicks My Ass

It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation's sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.

An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.

The Antikythera Machine

New Scientist
(the liveliest of the journals) and The Guardian posted this video of the rebuilt "Antikythera Mechanism", a machine found in a Greek shipwreck some 2,000 years old.
There's an argument on Wired as to whether it's a computer or a clock. Since it predicts points in time-- like calculating upcoming dates for the Olympics-- I say it's a computer. (The x-ray shows the inner workings of the original device.) I've been interested in ancient technology all my life-- Hero's steam engine, the citric juice battery used by the Egyptians for electroplating-- and seeing this mystery restored and deciphered is a wondrous thing.

World War One in Color

A startling gallery here of color photographs taken by French photographers during the Great War.

The Return of the Comic Strip: Online

Video killed the radio star, but thirty years before, Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the McCarthy era killed the comic book's chance to evolve into a mature medium. The comic strip as objet d'art held on in the newspaper, with the Joycean wordplay of Walt Kelly's Pogo, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant (which survives, when you can find it, under Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz) and Frank Frazetta's underpaid work-for-hire on Li'l Abner. By the 1970's, newspapers had shrunk the panel size by half, which made panoramic vistas and pen-and-ink work like that shown here next to useless.

Doonesbury was moved to the editorial page so that no innocent might trip over an idea, Peanuts was treading water and collecting royalties, and wit and craft were replaced by odious pablum.
I don't know if anyone outside fandom has noticed yet, but webcomics have been quietly building a new golden era for the comic strip, although dignified people are still embarrassed by the form. True, New York wants us to call them "graphic novels" and constipate the reader with proper MFA nightmares like Chris Ware, the kind of comics they think they should enjoy (ooh, look! art deco borders!), like those end of the year Oscar-bait films that someone said "confuse pain with art".
But Get Your War On and This Modern World captured an era as well as anything in any medium, and Alison Bechtel's alt-family strip Dykes to Watch Out For is finishing up just as the format is finding its legs. It's telling that the newly corporate Village Voice tried to kill This Modern World, and that the people in Bechtel's strip look more like my friends and family than Hi and Lois ever did-- and at their most dysfunctional, they still aren't as annoying as Cathy.
Kalamazoo artist Jane Irwin is posting her historical fiction about clockwork automatons online, before it appears between covers.
Phil and Katja Foglio's all-ages steampunk adventure Girl Genius can be read online; and sometimes I gotta go for the profane, self-referential "Sweet Monkey Jesus!" humor of Neo-Monster Island (and if you've been waiting for Godzilla to stomp the Bush administration into chutney, here's your chance to get your kaiju on).
Of the big, corporate publishers, The New York Times, of all people, has the cleanest presentation, with online comics that scroll up and down, like this strip, "Snow Dope" by Dean Haspiel. They even had sense enough to get the stick out of their butt and run La Maggie la Loca, by my ongoing favorite, Jaimie Hernandez, in the Sunday magazine, though online it's a huge, unreadable mess; wait for the trade.

The online reader developed for DC's Zuda Comics travels from left to right, meant to approximate page turning, but I find it simply annoying, and Marvel's online reader is even clumsier. The panels are either too big or too small for the screen, and whether a comic is fast or slow, the software-- not the reader-- dictates the pace at which the eye scans story and art. When even a hardened addict like myself finds it too much trouble to read your comics online, you've got issues that need resolving bigger than Joe Quesada's problems with women. The majors (in this case, Marvel and DC) need to bite the bullet, reformat their scans, and go with a presentation similar to the reader's choice, 11" by 17" scroll used by the Times and the independents.

"A Good Many Things Go Around in the Dark Besides Santa Claus." (Herbert Hoover)

Michael (Mike) Connell (standing above left), the I.T. guy for Karl Rove and the Bush administration, the fellow who "lost" those Justice Department e-mails, who admitted that the 2004 vote in Ohio had been rigged, has died in a small plane crash, leaving a wife Heather and four children. Probably an accident, but certainly the most convenient death for an outgoing administration since William Casey slipped into a coma during the Iran-Contra affair.


"A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?" -- While Raj from What's Happening looks on.

Goodbye, Bettie Page

Living archetype and artists' avatar Miss Bettie Page has passed away at 85. I've written about her twice before-- just last year because of the early death of her greatest benefactor, Dave Stevens-- and we shall not see her like again.

"All the sad sweet funny pretty girls in comics, from Sophie Bangs as Promethea to Francine to Maggie Chascarillo, owe a debt to Bettie Page."

Of all the money e'er I had, I spent it in good company;
And all the harm I've ever done, alas was done to none but me;
And all I've done for want of wit, to memory now I can't recall,
So fill me to the parting glass, goodnight and joy be with you all.

Of all the comrades e'er I had, they're sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e'er I had , they wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot that I should go and you should not,
I'll gently rise and softly call, goodnight and joy be with you all.

Take Off, Eh?

Canadian Coup Corner: What the hell is going on with Canada? They're supposed to be the sane ones. Sure, they've just as many guns as the U.S., and their junior hockey program would give a Spartan pause, but they mostly leave the craziness on the ice. With habeas corpus suspended in the land of Mickey Mouse, the U.S. in the thrall of busy, evil men, and labyrinthine Mexico reviving human sacrifice as a pastime along the Juarez border, I thought we could count on Canada to be the designated driver of North America. Now their election is suspended? By Her Majesty's representative? The 21st century might not be about democratization, but more and more about crowd control by the governing class, walling themselves off from desperate mobs in the drowning streets.

Comics Advent Calendar by Brian Conin

It's that time of year, when Brian Cronin puts together an advent calendar for his blog Comics Should be Good. This year it features political cartoonists from Thomas Nast to Dr. Seuss (whose political work is collected in Dr.Seuss Goes to War). If you're "in love with pen and ink on paper" like I am, it's worth a click. I thought I knew Thomas Nast, but I'd never seen this drawing before; hats off for the effort to surprise jaded eyes.