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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 06/ 9/2010

The First Pitch: Calling upon Ken Burns to consider the American cartoon

By Michael Cavna

Hours before Stephen Strasburg's electric major-league debut, the timely Ken Burns -- aka "America's documentarian" -- visited The Post to discuss his fall film, "The Tenth Inning." This is the fourth time I'd conversed with Burns over the years -- we previously sat to talk Mark Twain (I'm a registered Twainiac), national parks and "The War" -- and as the filmmaker mentioned his future projects, I was struck by the notion: There is one particularly American swath of cultural terrain that the "Lewis & Clark" historian has left all but unexplored.

America's documentarian, the man who has devoted hours to jazz and Jefferson, baseball and boxing, the Civil War and suffragettes, architecture and alcohol and the national highway system, has not yet turned a page onto the vibrant history and colorful narratives of the American cartoon.

Burns threw out the first pitch at Tuesday night's Nationals game, yet before taking the mound, he might have briefly taken notice of a historic sports-themed cartoon that hangs (fittingly) near a "presidential suite" at Nats Park. The century-old cartoon, according to the title card, depicts Uncle Sam "admonishing President Teddy Roosevelt to take a break from the Presidential sweepstakes" as then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft awaits his political turn at bat. The metaphor, as author-narrator David McCullough might intone with lyrical gravity, is baseball.

Hours after his opening throw, I have an open pitch for Ken Burns: The field is wide open for the defining film about the history of the American cartoon.

tafttoon.jpg This cartoon hangs at Nats Park.

From Thomas Nast forward, the editorial cartoon has long had a prominent perch in the American political dialogue. From Richard F. Outcault forward, the American comic strip --born of Hogan's Alley's Yellow Kid -- has been its own form of national pastime. And from the Depression era forward -- buoyed partly by the '30s might of Superman and Batman -- the comic book has been as American as apple pie and, yes, baseball.

As a historian, Burns, to his credit, has long used the newspaper cartoon to visually grace his films -- from depictions of a "baboon-like" Abraham Lincoln to pen-and-ink renderings of a leonine Mark Twain. Depending on its theme, the newspaper cartoon can lend split-second levity or immediate gravity onscreen. And looking back on eras when cameras and daguerreotypes were still rare, the cartoon is sometimes the best visual window we have.

If not Burns, however, another gifted filmmaker could step forward to make the defining film on the American cartoon. Either way, there's not time to waste, for at least two primary reasons.

First, the state of the American cartoon is in such tremendous flux: Staff political cartoonists have been disappearing from the newsroom landscape quite precipitously in recent years, as the American newsroom itself has been remade for deeply transitional times. The American newspaper comic strip, to put it simply, is seeing great change in terms of syndication and online delivery. The New Yorker is a bastion for the American magazine cartoon, but such print outlets are fewer, many cartoonists say. Meanwhile, audiences for the comic book and the graphic novel have exploded in recent decades.

Second, there are some longtime cartoon legends who till walk, and talk, colorfully among us. At the National Cartoonists Society's Reubens Awards some days ago, I spoke with sports cartoonist Bill Gallo, whose historic tenure at the New York Daily News stretches back to World War II; George Booth, a longtime cartooning icon at The New Yorker; and Mort Walker, whose strip "Beetle Bailey" is the last newspaper comic approved personally some 60 years ago by publisher William Randolph Hearst. All three cartoonists had so much boyish glee in their eyes, who knows -- they might outlive both Ken Burns and myself. But the larger reality is, they represent a generation of near-nonagenarians (one that includes "Family Circus's" Bil Keane, and the 80something Mell Lazarus, among numerous others) who have great stories to share now.

I've had the pleasure to talk with another near-nonagenarian legend, Stan Lee numerous times in the past year, and every time, I wish I could turn on a camera and capture his great and marvelous stories for future generations to appreciate on film.

And given Burns's meditations on American culture and race, I'd be intrigued to see what he would do with the George Herriman chapter alone.

So this is my open pitch. Yes, films have focused on the biographies of many cartooning figures, including Chuck Jones and Charles "Sparky" Schulz -- both of whom left us too soon about a decade ago (about the same time that The Post's legendary Herblock died, as well). And we've had more specific cartoon-related films -- the recent "Waking Sleeping Beauty," for instance, which looked at the fall and rise of Disney's fabled animation house.

Still, I have not come across the defining documentary on the American cartoon.

It's been said that there are at least three uniquely American creations: jazz, baseball and the comic strip. Well, as we know, Ken Burns has already waxed rhapsodic on those first two. Cinematically, it's time for the third panel.

By Michael Cavna  | June 9, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  | Tags:  Bill Gallo, Charles Schulz, Chuck Jones, George Booth, Herb Block, Herblock, Mort Walker, Richard Outcault, Stan Lee, Thomas Nast  
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This is great! I can already picture the slow pans across various strips while somebody says something historically apt. Not somebody lugubrious like Morgan Freeman though. Maybe try for Tom "Spongebob" Kenny or whatsisname who voiced Marmaduke in that movie.

Posted by: rhompson | June 9, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

I think it would be wonderful for someone of the stature of Ken Burns to tackle the subject of American cartoons. Our history and our psyche are caught up in the drawings and the humor that people ofttimes cast asides as of no importance. When I was a child reading the funny pages gave me a window into an adult world that I was curious about. Now they remove me from many an adult worry for a short time.

And I agree Mr. Thompson - Morgan Freeman is too serious a voice for the serious study of cartoons!

Posted by: elyrest | June 9, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

I think this actually would be a really interesting project, especially if it focuses on all types of comic art. The 19th century could have Nast and Keppler on the Gilded Age excesses, then move to the strips and merchandising of Outcault, then to the boom of modern comic strips...

Posted by: Mrhode | June 9, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

...and the visuals would be great, of course.

Posted by: Mrhode | June 9, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Wonder if Burns could get Watterson to talk to him?

Posted by: jimbo1949 | June 10, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Excellent idea - and one Burns should adopt. But knowing Burns style he would spend the majority of the series fixating on one strip and then breeze through other important ones in a "Oh by the way, these are important too." I know Burns is gifted and some episodes of his series are incredibly moving but they are also accompanied by ones that are excessively boring in that he is plowing over the same territory and themes repeatedly. But still a great idea and one that deserves some film makers attention.

Posted by: dre7861 | June 11, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

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