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Robert Rodriguez, Chris Ware, Ben Sargent -- what do these men have in common? They all worked as cartoonists for The Daily Texan.

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Last weekend, Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids was the No. 1 film at the box office. On Wednesday, the first page of The New York Times Arts section featured a piece about Chris Ware and his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The best thing about the Statesman, and this has been true for a long time, is Ben Sargent's work. What these three men have in common is that they once drew for The Daily Texan (Rodriguez and Ware did comic strips, Sargent did editorial cartoons). You can add to that list Berke Breathed (who probably achieved the most fame of any Texan strip-meister with his post-UT strip Bloom County), Sam Hurt (Eyebeam, check out his wonderful books or the ongoing work in XL), and Martin Wagner (the often brilliant work in Hepcats). Who knows who I'm leaving out? (Did Shannon Wheeler ever work for the Texan?) It doesn't take much to realize that one of the great hidden cultural histories of Austin can be found in yet another pile of Texan history.

Rodriguez's strip Los Hooligans prefigures Spy Kids in its detailed, affectionate rendering of a large Hispanic family. The skilled narrative and clever illustration indicate Rodriguez's prodigious cinematic command.

Chris Ware's work is undeniably brilliant, some of the most technically impressive work in comics today. I've always found it a little too predictable and relentless; I haven't experienced the epiphanies so many others have. I find Ware awe-inspiring but cold and unconnecting, just as I find later Kubrick (which is probably as complimentary as criticism gets). Still, to have the most innovative American comic artist of the day so clearly and directly influenced by Windsor McKay is a treat. In strips like Dreams of the Welsh Rabbit Fiend and, especially, Little Nemo in Slumberland, published in the first decades of the last century, McKay demonstrated a genius for the use of the very form of comic strip art as its most effective means of narration. The dreams (and both strips featured dreams) worked because of the visual techniques McKay used to convey them. The medium is the message. Along the way, McKay also produced "Gertie the Dinosaur," one of the first and most influential animated shorts. McKay's work is infected with a rabid imagination and an unrepentant sense of affection. Ware's world, just as visually inspired and, if possible, even more imaginative, is bleak and dark and no matter how large, always growing smaller.

None of the current crop of Texan cartoonists has caught my eye, but I'm a better talent scout in hindsight. I will say that any strip getting self-reflexive early on -- commenting on the comic strip form or using it as a prop -- indicates a certain poverty of the imagination. What drives all the alumni artists mentioned is that, inherently, they are storytellers. Narrative and people fuel their work. It is not a collection of gags or desperate ideas. They are character-driven stories that use the comic strip form to make their point (Sargent is no exception here. The incredible narrative sensibility he can achieve in a single panel is a mainstay of his work). Anyway, pick up the Texan, check the comics page, see what you think.


In a very short time, Chronicle Politics Editor Lou Dubose revitalized our Politics section. Make that ex-Politics Editor. In the wake of the success of Shrub, the George W. Bush bio he co-wrote with Molly Ivins, Lou has a new book contract and is leaving us. Fortunately, Michael King has stepped into his place. As Politics Editor of the Chronicle, King brings enormous credentials, most recently a five-year stint with The Texas Observer. But forget the résumé, what Mike has done in the brief time he has been with us, both as a writer and an editor, indicate how right Mike is for this role. He will be aided, of course, by Erica C. Barnett, who also handles city news coverage in her column "Austin Stories" and in "Naked City." As smooth as this transition has been and as optimistic as I am about this section, Lou Dubose will be missed.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

robert rodriguez, chris ware, ben sargent, the daily texan, lou dubose, michael king

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