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Estelle’s Shine

As Paul Revere once warned, “The British [divas] are coming.” Estelle, a 28-year-old West Londoner, joins a burgeoning trans-Atlantic hit-parade cabal (Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis), this one balancing expertly on the rapping-singing switchblade. Discovered by John Legend and crowned as the flagship artist on his fledgling Home School Records, Estelle turns Shine into a durable debut, pleasant and shrewd. Her big hit, “American Boy,” drags Kanye West on a domestic road trip through the valleys of California and the fragile psyches of American men, hospitably and acutely aware of America’s G-spot: vanity. More splendid moments abound: “Back in Love” and “In the Rain” are breathtaking trips into lovelorn melodrama. “So Much Out the Way” is spoiled by Wyclef Jean’s insoluble synths, but resurrected briefly by her semi-raps. Everything else she handles with aplomb, including the inevitable showdown with Legend himself (“You Are”); her slim, delightful pin-needle of a voice, though slight at first, is a reassuring constant over 47 minutes. As many have noted, Estelle recalls a specific pop luminary: Lauryn Hill, the fallen virtuoso of limitless promise and overwhelming demons. Shine revels in its creator’s limits, and avoids any demons deftly enough.

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Caricature Assassination

If the Boston Massacre were to take place today, someone would no doubt capture the event on a cell-phone camera and upload the images online within minutes. Lacking such tools, the silversmith Paul Revere took the established technology of 1770—copper engraving—and in a few weeks churned out prints depicting the attack. They sold briskly, fueled Yankee rebellion, and established a link between cartooning and American politics before the country had been formally created.

Even if hand-drawn cartoons no longer have any role in transmitting news events, the integration of cartoons into American politics is striking, and continues today in a variety of forms. The Art of Ill Will, which takes its title from a quotation from longtime Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, traces that history from the 18th century to the near-present, complete with full-page reproductions of more than 100 cartoons.

In some ways, the cartoon makes an odd political weapon. The clearest and most passionate cartoons usually make aesthetic sacrifices in the name of doctrine; in Revere’s case, his sky was colored blue even though the shootings took place at night, and for unexplained reasons he depicted one of the slain—a black man named Crispus Attucks—as white.

Unlike most political columns, which fuse author and opinion, the best political cartoons derive their power from an ironic slipperiness; it’s impossible to determine whether the cartoonist holds the view being expressed, or whether that view is in fact the lampoon’s target. And indeed, while a few heroes in Dewey’s history had steadfast principles that got them fired, the economics of cartooning more often meant that scribblers found themselves working all booths at the political bazaar. For some, this was as much an aesthetic principle as a financial one. Walt McDougall, a cartoonist from the 19th and early 20th century, wrote that a cartoonist should have “that curious elasticity of mind that permits him to make cartoons for either party without doing violence to his own opinion.”

If that sounds like a recipe for timid, soulless cartooning, well, that’s one of Dewey’s chief complaints. Other factors that have dulled the teeth of the American political cartoon include the necessity of bending to publishers’ views, the decline of daily newspapers, and the development of electronic media, which encourage different forms of satire—who needs Nast when you’ve got Colbert?

Dewey also does not shrink from presenting cartooning’s darker side—its persistent promulgation of ethnic and racial stereotypes (the very word comes from printing plates used to make newspapers in the 19th century). Even relatively progressive cartoonists can sink to ethnic slur: Theodor Geisel (a/k/a/ Dr. Seuss) provides one of the book’s deepest cringes with a 1942 image depicting thousands of Japanese men being given packets of dynamite as they await a signal from the homeland to attack America. The cartoon was published just hours before the government rounded up Japanese-Americans for internment.

Still, much of the enjoyment of a political cartoon depends on whose ox is being gored, and it’s refreshing to see satires of early-20th-century American imperialism, and the degree to which cartoonists held Joe McCarthy in contempt. Equally engaging is watching cartoons evolve from a clunky reliance on text and dialogue balloons, to more streamlined single-captioned panels, to the biting narratives of Feiffer or Ted Rall.

Dewey makes a strong case that the political cartoon has played a uniquely formative role in American history, but his quick dismissal of non-U.S. contexts occasionally leads to omission, such as when he deems the 1897 debut of Rudolph Dirks’s The Katzenjammer Kids to be the “first strip to employ a series of panels to tell a story.” That ignores the well-
established fact that the strip was inspired by Max und Moritz, a series of German cartoon books published before Dirks was born. Also, Dewey laments the decline of cartoonists’ influence in the U.S., blaming electronic media, without bothering to look at countries like Japan, where animation for grown-ups thrives alongside more “modern” forms of communication.

It’s also unfortunate that Dewey clings so strongly to the twinned histories of cartoons and paper publications. At the end of his introduction, he writes: “Happily for many cartoonists caught up in newsroom conflicts, they have been able to maintain contact with the public through personal and group websites; but even their high-ranked Google name value doesn’t offer the same exposure for potential impact that print does.” Online cartooning may be in its infancy, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a 30-second animated Doonesbury-style cartoon distributed via YouTube that could reach a worldwide audience much larger than, say, Herblock ever had through The Washington Post.

But these are quibbles: The true stars of this book are the cartoons themselves. During a period when an entire government seems drawn by a satirist, it’s instructive to look back at a history of politics reduced to two dimensions.

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Expose yourself

Dear Trent,

How’s it going, dude? Long time no see. (Ha Ha Ha) But seriously, as much as I loved your excellent soundtrack work, I thought I’d never get my hands on the follow-up to the holiest of relics, The Downward Spiral. I worried that the pressure of performing those one-of-a-kind hymns to the eternal sadness live so many times would drive you from the music business altogether. I’ll bet those jerks in Orgy would have liked that. Those guys suck! Trent, we both know how sacred a song like ‘‘Blue Monday’’ by New Order is, and they treat it like yesterday’s meatballs. It makes me sick! Peter Hook should hit them over the head with his bass. By the way, I always thought Hooky was the cutest member of New Order. I know, I know, everyone thinks Bernard hung the stars and the moon, but he has no passion. (Did you know he takes Prozac now? That’s no way to write sad songs!) Anyway, did you know Orgy’s guitarist used to be in ’80s hair-metal band Rough Cutt? It’s true! I have to admit their song ‘‘Kids Will Rock’’ was pretty hot, even if the subject matter was a tad cliché. Trent, as much as I’m aligned with the inner misery of your haunted lyrics, I love how loud and anthem-like your rockiest songs are. The other day MTV played Slaughter’s ‘‘Up All Night,’’ and even though Slaughter were pretty silly, they sounded awesome coming out of my Optimus brand Radio Shack speakers. Then they played some Smashing Pumpkin thing, and it sounded like ants. And not the good kind of ant, as in Ant Music for Ant People! (Adam rules!) But annoying, buzzing, tiny, ugly ants from Hell!
Oh my god, I haven’t even told you how much I worship the new album. It totally rocks! The highest compliment I can give is that when I close my eyes it’s as if I’m listening to the last album all over again. I think you were right on in duplicating the same groundbreaking sound you came out with five years ago. Now that everyone has caught up with your brilliance, you can show them how it’s done! (Um, Filter? I don’t think so. I know that guy was a friend of yours, but he will never fill your leather pants.) And I love how you haven’t given up on the way your songs start off really slow and creepy, and then GET REALLY LOUD AND ANGRY, and then get soft and sad again. You must do that like 20 times on the new album. ‘‘The Mark Has Been Made’’ starts out all dreamy like a 4AD album cover and then kicks ass like Queen’s ‘‘We Will Rock You’’! Trent, I know it took you over two years and a whole lot of tears and black nail polish to record this epic of decadence, but it was worth the wait.
This may be in bad taste, but do you ever feel bad that you weren’t mentioned as the reason behind all those school shootings? If it makes you feel better, Marilyn Manson was, and you made him what he is today! I know you guys aren’t talking, and your totally rockin’ ‘‘Starfuckers, Inc.’’ is supposed to be about him and his band. Maybe you can bury the hatchet someday. You two were such good friends! Did you know the Rolling Stones (Gag!) had a song called ‘‘Star Star’’ that was about the same thing—I think it was about Warren Beatty (Double gag!!). Anyway, your CD has just come out (I thought CDs’n’Such at the mall would start selling them at midnight like they did with the Limp Bizkit album, but they’re such retards there), and once again you are pioneering the marriage of heavy guitars, moody atmospherics, electronic drones and beats and aggressive singing. Just like Killing Joke 20 years ago. Weren’t they great! I just know that your albums will sound as fresh and exciting someday as their 1980 debut does now. (I know you’ll think I’m queer, but Youth their bass player produced one of my fave Bananarama singles, ‘‘Long Train Runnin’ ’’—a Doobie Bros. cover!) Just imagine what they could have come up with if they’d had a ton of money and two years in the studio. Back then, they made records in like two days.
Your album truly runs the gamut of styles. All the way from With Sympathy–era Ministry, to Cold Life–era Ministry, to Twitch-era Ministry, to The Land of Rape and Honey–era Ministry, to current-day Ministry. Wow! That’s a lot to take in. Trent, I’m sending a gift with this letter. It’s a creepy amulet that my total Goth friend Prince Ivor got on eBay. The guy who sold it says Charles Manson gave it to Terry Melcher, the record producer, in the hopes that Paul Revere would record a song he had written, called ‘‘Girl, You’ll Be a Raider When You Die.’’ But get this, Terry Melcher gave it to Sharon Tate as a housewarming gift when she moved into his old house. The legendary house where you created The Downward Spiral! Isn’t that awesome!
Anyway, the new album is the best. It’s right up there with the greats: Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and the Leather Nun. I love how the two CDs are entitled ‘‘Left’’ and ‘‘Right.’’ It’s like the left one represents aggression and sadness, and the right one represents anger and depression. And I love how ‘‘Please’’ is like Skinny Puppy without any of their icky bits about dead animals and boring politicians. It’s about real life! Especially when you sing, ‘‘All the flesh—All the sin—There was a time when it used to mean just about everything.’’ And ‘‘Where is Everybody?’’ is almost like your own wicked version of rap. When you bust a move and sing, ‘‘Pleading and needing and bleeding and breeding and feeding exceeding,’’ I want to shout, ‘‘You go boy!’’ (Do you like rap?) Too bad most ‘‘normal’’ people couldn’t begin to understand the depths of your tragic soul. You expose yourself to the world! Your songs sound like a hundred guitars are playing an elegy for the madness of humanity. Just don’t wait another five years to put out another masterpiece, or you will have to compete with the new Guns N’ Roses album. (Ha Ha Ha)
Yours in blood,

One devoted fan

PS: My friend Baron Olaf says your new haircut makes you look like that Garth Brooks comedy character, Chris Gaines. But the Baron is so lame.