The Coast Is Not Clear

June 4, 2012


Since the real-time Arlo & Janis is on the coast now, and since we’ve been talking about boats, I thought I’d show you this familiar but critical series that begins on July 4, 2012. By the way, if you follow the above link to A&J on GoComics (which is the only way you’re going to see this longish series), be sure and check out the “Featured Comment” below the cartoon. Those commenters; they can read me like a book.


67 thoughts on “The Coast Is Not Clear”

  1. Well, The Dark Side. (And I know some here disagree with that appellation.)
    IIRC, when Jimmy first introduced the concept of what has become The Village, he commented that one of the things he did not want to see here was “Flame Wars”. So perhaps that’s a purpose The Dark Side fulfills. To the point that I haven’t ventured over there for many years.

    Reply
  2. Jimmy, I tried to email you for an address for someone to write to about A&J, because my original email to a Mr. Glynn went unanswered. I am not sure your new address you gave worked. To whom ought I write? Thank you! –DJG

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      • And here is what I sent February 10, but now I’d like it to go to your editor, since Mr. Glynn never replied, and I guess that you never got to see it. It is a long email, but would be way too short and disorganized for a book chapter, as I mention below:

        Dear Mr. Glynn:

        I wish to praise Jimmy Johnson’s “Arlo and Janis.” It is, in one sense, easy to do so, for it is one of the richest cartoon strips today–and has been for years and years.

        Mr. Johnson learned his lessons on writing cartoons long ago, and he has built his storytelling on well-proved American humor traditions. He has mastered the art of incongruousness (the kind that does not need to be taken seriously) that rises out of a reality familiar to his readers. It’s real, but it’s surprising and also harmless, and so it’s funny. That’s humor.

        But to master that art is exceptionally difficult. It must include a razor-sharp timing, and Mr. Johnson’s is comparable to that of Chuck Jones. Arlo and Janis’s panels always flow with exactly the right pauses and surges. It must also be tied to reality, and Mr. Johnson has chosen a husband and wife—and their marriage—as the centerpiece. His observations are deft and often uncanny. Both characters are so fully rounded, having deep hopes (Arlo and his sailing) and deep fears (Janis’s insecurity, which nevertheless has faded some degrees) as well as many times of nonchalance—and also even wild fantasy, the characters as alligators (started on April Fool’s Day, 2002) or Janis as a torch singer. Not even Charles Dickens ever mastered this, his characters chronically being too flat (good stories, though).

        Mastery of cartooning includes such things as mundane as settings, for a cartoonist runs a repertoire company, stage sets, costumes, lighting, direction, script—everything, as you know. And A&J’s stock-in-trade is its minimal settings (C. Jones again, but also C. Schulz), unless Mr. Johnson finds the need for some evocative branches blown by the wind (February 10, 2021) or some evocative seascape. There is a quite professional nod to an old-time saloon on February 23, 2018 (as well as to Ogden Nash; Mr. Johnson knows our culture). Yes, his drawing is much improved from the first years, but he has solved virtually all those problems the way many cartoonists never manage to do. The characters’ eyebrows often approach the same expressive power as Snoopy’s; on April 4, 2002, we get four different mouth lines from the alligator, expressing four different and important reactions; the little breeze around Super Janis is indicated by only three but well-chosen items: her hair, her cape, and part of her skirt—with that arresting dash of coloring the one panel contrasting so importantly with the beige backgrounds in the surrounding panels (February 20, 2018).

        The best cartoons deal with values truly important to us. Poorer cartoons attempt to use what is shocking or even abusive, what is shabbily goofy, or what seems to be a passing fad or meme. They rely on, at best, mediocre drawing and writing. They are tiresome and sometimes even stupid, though they might bring in some cash. Jimmy Johnson, however, is constantly seeking what Duke Ellington thought was needed in music—what is “fitting,” that is, what is truly most appropriate. And so, like Mr. Ellington and Johann Sebastian Bach did, Mr. Johnson always tries his best.

        It not only makes a difference, it makes a fine accomplishment.

        Cartoons no longer sell newspapers the way they did in the first third of the 20th century, as you well know. Despite that, I learned to read in the early 1960s by reading Charle M. Schulz’s “Peanuts,” and newspaper cartoons have stayed in business till now. Via “Peanuts” I came to value other great comic strips—two that were important to Mr. Schulz were “Skippy” (such movement!) and “Popeye”; he called the latter a “perfect” strip, and it is: Every day is an important day in “Popeye.”

        A&J is one of those great strips, though the audiences for newspaper cartoons are now drawn off to lots of other things, including cute cat videos (there’s a truly fine cat photo bombing on Feb. 12, 2018). Audiences say such things as “You were peeking in our windows” and “I liked it,” but the artistry must go much deeper than that to elicit such surface reactions as those.

        I recently acquired my only Johnson original, from February 13, 1997. Ruth’s reaction to Gene’s gift of a rose is poignant, earnest, touching, and funny, all in one. It’s wonderful. I am so happy to at last have a Johnson original. I never tire of looking at it. It is a marvel that something so ephemeral should have such permanence, but that is a tribute to the fine artistry in what is ostensibly a simple art.

        Once, in writing to Mr. Johnson, I compared his cartooning to Red Skelton’s art, and Mr. Johnson took that as the high praise that I meant. Writing this little (compared to a chapter in a book, it is quite little) email I find as challenging as the blind men describing that elephant. I am only scratching the surface, and in such a disorganized way.

        This little evidence I bring here, though, may begin to show how A&J is in fact superlative, as you also probably know. It is one of the world’s treasures in the same way that Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” is, or Pat Brady’s own cartoons for “Rose Is Rose.” A&J plays lightly but so deftly with our human depth. That lightness is essential, but it is the depth that gives it its excellence.

        In teaching music and music education (I am retired a year now) I really was teaching culture, and thus often widened my teaching to include things besides music, including, on occasion, cartooning.

        I miss Pat Brady’s own drawing fresh each day. I miss Walt Kelly’s.

        But every morning I get to read “Arlo and Janis,” among others. Light and deep at the same time! How does he do it? Well, that’s the question Mr. Schulz asked about Andrew Wyeth, and I am content to marvel and not really know.

        That’s why I’ll keep reading, and that is some of why A&J is so very important in our culture.

        It is easy, in one sense, to praise A&J—but to really praise it well—that is so difficult! It is that fine.

        Thank you for publishing it!

        (I hope he gets a raise.)

        Sincerely yours,

        David J. Gonzol, PhD
        Professor emeritus of music
        Founder, Shepherd Youth Chorus

        School of Music
        Shepherd University

        “When you dance to music . . . or when you play it, then you own it.”

        —Ben Ratliff, The New York Times (January 11, 2009)

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  3. Discovery: Last evening, faced with a recalcitrant peanut butter jar which would not open, I placed a wide [1/4 inch] rubber band around the metal top and found that it provided enough extra “grip” so the top unscrewed easily. I imagine that a second rubber band around the jar itself would have made the opening even easier.
    This should be widely applicable to screw-top containers, using different sizes of rubber bands.

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  4. The best comic in our newspaper and yes I still get an actual paper. The 7/12 cartoon is so clever. Poor Arlo worried that his coffee brewing days are over!

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