This Modern World 

Drawing the line at three loony 'toons.

God bless Dubya & Co. but only if for these few reasons: You're a contemporary American political cartoonist thankful for a bottomless supply of idiocies and especially if you are cartoonists "Tom Tomorrow" and Robbie Conal. Or you're not an American political cartoonist, but you are fit to be tied over the actions, day one, of this sorry administration.

Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) you know from the contents page of this paper or any of the numerous newsweeklies carrying "This Modern World," the syndicated strip that's the subject of a new treasury called The Great Book of Tomorrow (St. Martin's Press). But why begin with Bush II? The Great Book doesn't, because it's a career retrospective into what started as no career at all: Perkins, a wandering college grad in the early 1980s marking time as a word-processor but in his spare time developing his trademark combination of found imagery and original artwork run up against text blocks mocking the daylights out of American half-truths, untruths, and pure poppycock. Again, the nation's supply of each: bottomless; again, Tomorrow's surface good-naturedness in the midst of attack: this great satirist's great weapon.

But if it's bad-naturedness you want, go to Artburn (RDV Books/Akashic Books), Robbie Conal's new compilation of "guerrilla cartooning" at its below-the-belt best. The lowdown on Conal: He first came to public attention for his "art attacks": illegally wheat-pasted posters plastered all over Manhattan and based on his charcoal-on-canvas caricatures of America's reigning power abusers and scandal masterminders. (For the record: Reagan et al.; "Irangate," etc.) This was in 1986, the posters were "misdemeanors perpetrated to protest higher crimes," and they were a struggle a struggle to mount undetected in the dead of night and a "struggle of reason against absurdity," according to Bill Smith, art director of the alternative newsweekly LA Weekly. In 1997, that paper brought Conal on board as a regular contributor. The result: full-page artwork marked by Conal's unforgiving attention to detail, with some wise-ass wording thrown in and a factoid or two in paragraph form as capsule history lesson. Conal's targets, for the record and in addition to George the 41st and 43rd, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Bill Clinton, Albert Gore, Tipper Gore, etc.: Martha Stewart ("the home-design dominatrix of middle-class decoration"), Gary Condit ("sanctimonious sleazebag"), Katherine Harris ("a transvestite queen ... doing an impression of Anita Bryant in a power suit"), and J. Edgar Hoover ("[a]rguably the man most dangerous to American democracy for the 48 years he ruled the FBI," in or out of drag). For Conal's artistic indebtedness: see the image/text combos of Barbara Kruger and the still insufficiently recognized nightmare drawings of Sue Coe. But for a nice summary of Conal's national outlook on life, see him on Lewinsky: "I just can't blame Monica ... . She's been blamed enough, but it could be just a projection of our own embarrassment that beneath the hypocritical rhetoric, our society really works this way. Including bringing down a president for having a girl go down on him. We're just so full of shit and we know it."

Had it with Bush-bashing for the time being? This modern world, period? See Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District (Pantheon) by Ben Katchor, new in paperback. Katchor's weekly strips appear in The Forward and other newspapers (including, once upon a time, the one you're reading) plus monthly strips in Metropolis magazine. And a metropolis, never named but just the same, New York City, is Katchor's beat. The time frame in question? This one now minus all easy reference points the city, a system of signs of inscrutable meaning; its storefronts, empty or newly occupied by businesses making even lesser sense than the businesses previous. (E.g.: Sensum's Symmetry Shop, Simon Magus Misspent Youth Center.) Down these shadowy streets (rendered in pen and ink and every shade of gray) walks Knipl and a host of secondary characters you either size up into some fractured seminarrative or give up halfway trying to. Knipl's there with you: "There is a pattern, but I lack the mental equipment to discern it. It's hopeless ... ." Not so hopeless according to the "genius" people at the MacArthur Foundation, which recognized Katchor in 2000. But you think Katchor's is solely a New York state of mind? Think again. There's a stretch of Jackson, west of Rhodes, that's right up this guy's dark alley.

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