— Chapter Twenty-Six: A Roach-Eyed View —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
John Whitney received a package two days after it was sent to him by Stewart. He could tell from the size and shape of the envelope that itcontained something other than sketches normally sent for approval. Roughly determining its weight by hand, he could feel the heavy cardboard protecting its content from damage.
Upon opening the package, he discovered Stewart’s note taped to the flap, covering what he imagined to be a finished panel. The note explained that Stewart had addressed the concerns of his readers, and had modified the concept and the art as best he could, without totally diverging from the original storyline.
The first thing that Whitney noticed when he unwrapped the contents was that the art was far more elaborate then Stewart’s previous attempts. The illustration was denser and bolder. His first impression was that he was viewing Michelangelo’s Pietà in pen and ink, but it was more disturbing than the images of Mary and Christ, as they were replaced by roaches. The next thing he noticed was the caption drawn between the forelegs and placed beneath the sacrificed body of the smaller roach that implored the reader to an act of mercy and to:“Save Us!”
The art submitted was in final form, with every detail of the largest roaches in the foreground accentuated. The panel was powerful, beautifully rendered and sad. But most importantly, the illustration demanded attention and could not be ignored.
Whitney had no idea of how to explain the panel to the editorial board, or try to explain how it may or may not alter their opinions or that of the critics and general readership. Rereading Stewart’s note, he considered the possibility that Stewart’s objective might well have been to force the termination of his contract, while also appealing to his readers to reevaluate the series and “save” Kafka and its roaches from extinction.
Throughout Whitney’s lifetime, he’d taken many risks and, after considering his options, decided that he had little reason to intercede in Stewart’s actions in addressing the comments and concerns presented to him. Since he had contributed his advice in choosing the direction of the Kafka series from its inception, he accepted the fact that he was also responsible for its failure to resonate with the greater marketplace. If Stewart could save it, so much the better. And if he couldn’t, Whitney was willing to take a good portion of the blame directed at him by other members of the syndicate board as well as from the newspapers to which the artwork had been submitted.
Although the current panel appeared to be a plea to readers, Whitney believed that Stewart must have had an idea of the steps he needed to take to achieve acceptance of the cartoon, and would already be working on subsequent panels consistent with the modification. Therefore, he simply repackaged Stewart’s artwork and sent it off for publication without comment.
Stewart did in fact have a concept for the follow-up panels. His thoughts had refocused him to a roach-eyed view of the world, whether inside a wall, beneath a floor, or on a street corner in Paris or Rome. His follow-up panel, already in the works, depicted a roach stuck to the sole of a running shoe, as witnessed by another roach scuttering into the dark River Walk in Savannah, Georgia. In the panel, a veritable wall of roaches can be seen dodging the bikes and feet of passersby, many of which will be trampled and trod to death by human feet and squashed by the tires of bicycle wheels approaching from all directions.
Stewart already had created the caption for the panel, when completed: Dodging Death in Savannah.
The next day’s panel would feature closeup views of two roaches touring a concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, with the caption scrawled across a wall: Nothing much has changed for us.
Stewart planned a split panel for the next release, with the first half of the image picturing two well-dressed bugs and their small roach son waiting in line at a movie theater in Philadelphia. The lower-right half of the panel showed the backs of the roaches’ heads looking up at the marqee of the Boyd Theater, that announces “THEM”, a sci-fi thriller about giant ants that take over the Earth, captioned underneath by the subtitle “starring James Whitmore... and a cast of thousands.”
Released from his restrictions of appeasing editorial staffs, Stewart used his own judgment to evaluate each cartoon, and transformed the panels into works of art. According to his two-year contract, Stewart would own the originals and the rights for future publication. To better assure the return of his boards, he began to include prepaid, self-addressed envelopes for the return of his original work.
Taking Stewart’s lead, Whitney began passing along the packages sent to him after providing only cursory glances at the work, and waited to hear of complaints or objections from the readers or editorial staffs of the newspapers.
In late July, Whitney received a call from the chief syndicate editor, asking him if a different artist was being use for the series. Whitney answered that Stewart Little was still creating the cartoons, as indicated by his name printed in the bottom right-hand corner of each panel. The editor went on to ask if a writer had been hired to assist in the development of the panels, and Whitney responded, “No difference. It’s still the same young man, Stewart Little.”
Unknown to Whitney, the reason for the call was the sizable numbers of positive responses received from readers since the transformation, and an upswing of syndicate newspapers choosing to renew their Kafka subscription.
When he finally learned from another board member that Kafka was rebuilding its audience, Whitney had to laugh at the thought and responded, “We should all know that Mr. Little has taken the readers’ comments to heart, and has made changes based on their recommendations.”
Whitney hadn’t contacted Stewart since receiving the personal note from him and the initial completed panel. It was on only a day prior to Stewart’s birthday that Stewart received a card from Whitney that included a hand-written note letting Stewart know that for the moment, the new improved Kafka series was striking a positive chord with readers.
“I don’t know if I can keep up the pace of production” said Stewart, speaking with Whitney by phone after receiving the note, and letting his agent know that he may need to reduce the number of panels submitted,“since there just aren’t enough hours in the day to maintain the pace.”
Knowing the chances that he’d taken in the submittal process, Whitney answered bluntly, “Well, Stewart, that’s your problem. At this point you’re still playing catch-up to build up a reserve and to continue to meet your obligation to the syndicate in order to receive the compensation promised to you in your contract.”
There was silence on the other end of the call, since Stewart never truly believed the cartoon would remain in syndication after the loss of sponsoring newspapers, even while he was attempting to save himself from termination.
“I understand!” was all Stewart could say, before Whitney began to speak again in a very friendly and positive manner. “I’ve been waiting to speak with you about another matter, but waited until we’d rectified issues with the Kafka series.”
“Go on,” said Stewart, his head still spinning by the thought of the work ahead of him.
“We haven’t addressed The Cargyles,” responded Whitney.
“Oh, Christ!” exploded Stewart. “I can’t handle what I’ve got and you’re going to ask more from me?”
“Calm down, Stewart. You won’t have to create another series, but I’m not sure yet what you’ll be asked to do. Before I get into it, I want to know if you’d be willing to partner with me on another project.”
“As I told you. I have my hands full.”
“I understand that, Stewart,” said Whitney, “but this may be well worth your time and effort.
“And, I possibly could be able to renegotiate your Kafka contract to decrease the number of panels required weekly, prior to the start of the new project.”
“How come you can do that now, and couldn’t when I told you that I was overworked?”
“That’s because business is business, and I’m not in business to lose money.
“Plus, I have lawyers that can help with those details.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Whitney paused for several seconds before beginning again.“Just the other day, I got a call from Norman Lear, the film producer who was interested in meeting with you after learning about your Cargyles series. Since that time, he’s been following you and your Kafka cartoons, and has become a fan of both the original series and its revision. His main reason for the call was to find out if you were still the artist involved in the cartoon, since the artwork for the series had recently changed.”
“So he liked what I’ve done?”
“He actually loves what you’ve done, but had somewhat hoped you might be free to work with him on a new TV sitcom about a working- class family living in Queens, New York, that’s headed by a narrow-minded bigot, who has resentments and prejudices towards many ethnic and racial groups.”
“Similar to The Cargyles?”
“Yes! Very similar, but based on the British sitcom that Lear just bought the rights to. He hopes to launch it in January of ‘71.
“I told him I’d ask you to get in touch with him, but he first wanted to know where you grew up.”
“Upper Darby, near Philly. Where I still live.”
“I think that’ll be close enough.”
“For what?” asked Stewart.
“For Lear. Do you want me to arrange a meeting? He’s in L.A., so it might be best to do a conference call.”
“Since I haven’t been terminated yet, I still have lots to do for the Kafka series.”
“How about first meeting Lear, and let me represent you. Then I’ll take care of the rest.”
Whitney took a breath and then said, “You’ve done a great job, Stewart. I honestly don’t know how you do it, but I sure admire your ability to get things done.”
“I haven’t really succeeded at anything much yet,” answered Stewart. “I believe I’ve been fortunate to have been given so many opportunities.”
“But you’re willing to take risks,” said Whitney, “when many who grew up like you wouldn’t or won’t.”
“The way I figure it, I have nothing to lose, because everything I want requires a win. And any win requires me to work hard, which doesn’t bother me, though it sometimes frustrates me.
“Of course I’ll want you for my agent, even though I can’t, for the life of me, understand why you’d want to bother.”
Whitney paused and changed his tone from matter-of-fact to wistful.
“With all of the wealth and opportunities that I’ve been given, I owe a great deal to the world... much more than I can ever repay. I’ve given away, and still give away, a lot of money... to charities, museums, hospitals and such, and get a lot of praise for what is thought to be philanthropic. But in reality, what in Hell am I going to do with it?
“I’m beyond the days of partying, and believe me, I did plenty of that... for far too long.
“I have no children of my own, only two step-daughters in their 30s. The father-in-law of both was FDR, and both are successful and wealthy in their own right. They don’t need Betsey’s or my money.
“I’ve had some successes and a great many failures, but I’ve never worried over need or want. The only scary time I’ve had was when I was taken prisoner by the Germans in World War II, but I fortunately escaped and when I got home, everything went back to normal, and since then I’ve managed my own and others’ money and am disgustingly rich, and in reasonably good health.
“So what am I going to do with the rest of my time here on Earth?
“And then I accidentally find you, a struggling kid with some talent and drive who makes me chuckle with a couple of cartoons in The New Yorker.
“And then I get to meet you, find out a little about you, and discover you’re even more than I thought you were. You’re responsible, care about people and make the best of what you’ve been given.
“Well, got to go, Stewart. So let’s see where the Lear connection can take you. In the meantime, I’ll do whatever’s necessary to help keep the “roaches” from the door. And, I’ll get back to you as soon as I hear back from Lear.
“Until then, keep working your ass off!”