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Frank McLaughlin has worked on wellknown American newspaper strips including Nancy, Brenda Starr and Gil Thorp, and was a regular inker for Marvel and DC. His latest project with long time collaborator Dick Giordano is the graphic novel White Viper, which can be seen at ComicMix.com. He also teaches at Paier College in Connecticut. Jeff McLaughlin talks to him.
Jeff: Are comics an art-form?
Frank: That’s the first question they ask you in art school – What is art? I don’t know what it is – nobody knows what the hell it is. It’s just one of those trick questions that people liked to discuss over coffee in the hippie days. But you know it’s not important because everybody is an artist of some kind. The minute you pick up a pencil and draw something you’re an artist. If you arrange flowers you’re an artist. If you decorate cakes, you’re an artist. You don’t have to get a degree. All you have to do is say you’re an artist.
Jeff: Some people would make a distinction between floral arrangements as a craft while an oil painting is fine art.
Frank: Well, yeah. There are artists with a capital ‘A’ and a lower case ‘a’. A capital ‘A’ Artist is a Monet, for example. If you’re an artist with a small ‘a’ you get paid for the work you do drawing pictures. Monet was from another era where artists had patrons and others who could support them in their work. If he were alive today who knows if he would even be working as a painter? Photography, computers and technology in general have taken over from paints. Thank God he and others lived when they did, otherwise we might never have seen their work.
Jeff: Are you an artist with a small ‘a’?
Frank: Oh sure. But you got to remember a lot of depends on whether it’s a hobby or a living. If you work in a bank all week and you paint oils on Sunday, you’re a banker who paints as a hobby. If you can make a living at it, terrific, but it’s hard to do and competition is fierce, and when you have fierce competition then you can call yourself an artist. Especially if you can grow a beard and wear a beret – then you’re an artist!
Another thing about being an artist. We used to work at Charlton. There was a guy there we didn’t like, a real jerk, who called himself an artist, but he was a colorist [of comic strip panels]. I used to sit next to Joe Gil, the writer. He said to me: “Artist? I was a colorist in kindergarten!” Joe was a funny guy.
Jeff: Tell me about White Viper.
Frank: White Viperis an adventure story about a woman. In certain parts of Asia, when they’re starving, they kill newborn kids because it’s another mouth to feed. Some of the boys are kept because they can work later, but the girls are often killed. So a woman takes her kid up this high mountain in a basket. There’s already a basket there, and what she does is push that basket off and replace it with hers, so you’re not killing your own kid. Monks are coming through the mountains and there’s a storm. They have something valuable and they’re attacked by bandits and left for dead. One monk is lost, looking for the monastery. He hears a baby crying, finds it alive in the basket, the storm stops, and he looks in the distance and there’s the monastery. So in that sense they’ve saved each other’s life. So now they’re beholden to each other for their safety. That’s how it starts.
Jeff: What themes are in the story?
Frank: The business of survival. How we are indebted to everyone we come in contact with, especially people whose lives we saved. Now that we’ve saved them, we’re responsible for them. So these two characters are responsible for each other. I don’t know how ‘philosophical’ that is. Superhero comic books usually contain a conflict between good and evil, and more often than not a very long fight scene between a superhero and a supervillain, who exchange viewpoints during the fight. Stan Lee used this approach for years. However, since the recent interest in 120 page graphic novels, we probably begin to see more of a chance to get philosophical.
Jeff: What about any philosophical issues in your newspaper strip Gil Thorp?
Frank: When Jack Berrill created it he dealt with teenage problems in the 50s, which were always problems that you knew were going to be solved by righteous people. If your kid was on drugs it was a bad thing, and Gil would step in and make it all right. But this new writer Jenkins was very religious, and he took on abortion. I thought it was very stupid because half the people in the country are for it, half are against it. You don’t pick on a divisive subject – you pick a subject where everyone will be happy in the end no matter where it goes. He did it because that’s what he felt about it, but you can’t do that and be successful. At one point in a script he had a guy on a golf course smoking a cigarette. I questioned it and the editor said “Don’t worry about it. It is probably part of the script that the guy is going to give up smoking or something.” But it didn’t happen that way, and three papers dropped the strip. One woman wrote in saying “Shame on you!” The newspapers are very reactive to complaints. God forbid you cause any discussion with anything you write in the papers these days. They’re afraid to make waves, and that’s one reason they’re going out of business.
Jeff: What do you think about scholars who are looking at comic books from a more serious perspective than you intend?
Frank: Well, there has to be some kind of philosophy in there whether intended or not. You’re writing about what you know, or your experiences, and when you do that you have a certain viewpoint. If that’s philosophical, fine. And if someone wants to read something into it… I keep thinking of Salvador Dali and people like that, who would be laughing up their sleeves because they’re painting stuff but they’ve no idea what they’re doing some days, and people are looking at it on a wall in a gallery someplace, and they’re standing there with their cheese and crackers and a drink talking about “What Dali really intended was this, that and the other thing.” If you believe that, fine. No harm in it. Just as long as people buy the comic book they’re philosophizing about!
Jeff McLaughlin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops B.C. Canada. He edited Comics as Philosophy and Stan Lee: Conversations. His next book is entitled Philosophy: In Black and White and Color. He is grateful to the interviewee for his time and insightful comments.