Rabbits Galore

Posted by on April 5th, 2010 at 3:27 PM

Blog, as we all have learned, conflates two words, “web” and “log,” suggesting thereby that a blog is a sort of daily log, or journal, of one’s transient so-called thoughts, kept on the Web rather than, say, in an otherwise blank-paged book locked in a drawer in the bedroom dresser. “Hare Tonic” is the name of this blog, in commemoration of my nearly life-long association with a spectacled rabbit, which I’ll explain (again) in a minute.

Today’s blog is a left-over from yesterday, Easter, which, itself, was, this year, anti-climactic following the April 5 issue of The New Yorker, which celebrated the holiday by printing a lot of rabbits, Easter bunnies, on its cover.

Imagine my surprise upon discovering, embedded among the leporidae depicted my own dingbat. (“Dingbat” is the highly technical term used to denominate small visual devices that cartoonists use in lieu of a verbal signature.)  The embedding, I hasten to alert you, was done by me. It is undoubtedly as close as I’ll ever get to having something of mine published in The New Yorker. But what else are blogs for if not self-indulgence?

As I once upon a time explained, I concocted the rabbit dingbat while cartooning in college.

I came upon the rabbit almost by accident rather than by deliberate design. While still a freshman, I was illustrating a story about alcohol abuse and highway safety for the campus humor magazine. To eliminate the abuse, the article proclaimed, we need only prohibit the sale of alcohol at roadside stands. I drew the picture you see here and, at the last minute—without giving it much thought, as I remember, instead of signing my name as was my usual wont, I drew a tiny spectacled rabbit taking a pull at a bottle (inset). My roommate thought it was funny, and I thought it was signature enough.

I drew several other cartoons for that issue of the magazine and put in rabbits everywhere instead of signing my name.

For the next four years, I drew cartoons and posters and signed them all with a rabbit. But I didn’t use the rabbit again for a long time after I escaped from college. I freelanced cartoons to magazines briefly, and I didn’t dare use it on any of these cartoons because Playboy seemed to have the franchise on rabbits, and I was pretty sure Hugh Hefner wouldn’t publish any of my cartoons if I signed them with a rabbit that would seem to be imitating the magazine’s mascot. And certainly no rival publication would. (As it happened, Hefner never published any of my cartoons anyway, rabbit or no.)

Finally, I realized that women don’t make passes at rabbits who wear glasses, so the world seemed safe for my rabbit again.

But Pat Oliphant stopped me. No, he didn’t actually speak to me about it, but I was afraid that people would think I was aping him with his diminutive penguin, Punk, who adorns all his editorial cartoons. I didn’t want to be perceived as a rank copycat.

Oliphant invented Punk because it was the only way he could make editorial comment. The Australian papers he cut his teeth on were not models of editorial daring. He described their posture once as consisting of firm convictions about the weather: his editors were unalterably opposed to bad weather and deliriously in favor of good weather. His cartoons were expected to support those positions. And, eager to preserve an employed status, Oliphant made sure they did. But he was able to slip in a little subversive opinion by having Punk do it: the penguin was small enough that his comments apparently escaped the notice of his timorous editors.

Then Oliphant came to the Denver Post in 1965 and rejoiced in the complete freedom to speak his mind afforded him by publisher Palmer Hoyt.

Eventually, I got peeved about Punk. Hey, I said (to myself), I was using a rabbit as a signature as early as the fall of 1955, nearly a decade before Oliphant turned up on these shores. So I decided not to let the Aussie-come-lately prevent me from deploying my rabbit again. (He had stood in the way for over twenty years as it was.)

Besides, editorial cartoonists long before Oliphant used dingbats.

The first in this country may have been Cliff Berryman, who, born in 1869, became the editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post in 1896. Six years later, he produced his most famous cartoon: it depicted famed hunter President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear cub tied to a tree while he was on a hunting trip in Mississippi. TR had hoped to bag a bear during the trip, but the bears evaded him. His entourage, knowing the Prez wanted to shoot a bear, beat the bushes in the forest and eventually flushed a baby bear, which they captured with ropes and tied to a tree. Then they went to fetch Roosevelt so he could bag his bear. TR, when he saw the bedraggled beast, declined to shoot.

Readers fell in love with Berryman’s cute little bear, and Berryman started including the bear in many of his cartoons, becoming thereby “beary-man.” His bear cub inspired a toy manufacturer to produce stuffed bears for children; the fuzzy bruins were called “Teddy Bears” in homage to their inspiration, the hunter Prez who refused to slaughter a baby bear to satisfy his bloodlust.

Berryman won a Pulitzer in 1944, and his son, James, followed in his footsteps, but, as far as I know, without a bear.

The Chicago Tribune’s John T. McCutcheon also became associated with an animal—a stray dog that he stuck into one of his cartoons one day for no particular reason. Readers demanded more of the dog, and John T. obliged, but his dog did not show up frequently enough to qualify as a dingbat.

Other early members of the inky-fingered fraternity were more deliberate. Jim Dobbins used a horse, putting an old nag’s head next to his signature; and Jack H. “Herc” Ficklen used a steer in his cartoons for a newspaper in his native Texas. Similarly, Rex Manning at the Arizona Republic affixed a cactus to his signature in his cartoons.

Oliphant’s Punk is the most famous dingbat these days, but not the only one. Tom Toles at the Washington Post uses a tiny drawing of himself at the drawing board as a dingbat. And Mark Streeter at the Savannah Morning News uses a miniature artist, who, in beret and smock, makes comments on the subject of the larger cartoon in much the same manner as Toles’ little self-caricature does.

My inspiration was probably Fred O. Seibel, editorial cartoonist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for over three decades, who accompanied his signature with a bespectacled crow— called “Jimmy Crow” at first, then, after racial sensitivity set in, “Moses.” I don’t think Seibel’s crow was actively lurking in my mind when I first used the rabbit: it had been, by then, six or seven years since I’d first seen Moses and been intrigued by the idea of a dingbat. But Seibel’s crow must’ve been somewhere back there: I’ve never really forgotten him.

I call my rabbit Cahoots. I call him that, but that’s not his name. He may not have a name. Or his name might be Harvey. I chose the rabbit because the name Harvey had become associated with a rabbit thanks to Mary Chase’s play, Harvey—and the subsequent Jimmy Steward movie— the title of which was inspired by one of the central figures of the production, a six-foot rabbit, usually invisible, called “Harvey.” My stratagem was that readers would see the rabbit in my drawings and think—immediately, as a virtual knee-jerk or Pavlovian drool—”Harvey!”

Clever, eh? Well, I’m only five-foot-eleven-inches tall, but I have some rabbit habits.

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