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Tony Kushner: From 'Angels' to 'Munich'

Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner co-wrote the screenplay for the new Stephen Spielberg film Munich. Kushner won a Pulitzer for his 1993-1994 play Angels in America, which was performed in two parts and set in New York in the mid-1980s in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

31:54

Other segments from the episode on January 3, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 3, 2006: Interview with Tony Kushner; Interview with Brian Walker.

Transcript

DATE January 3, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Screenwriter Tony Kushner discusses his part in the
new Steven Spielberg film "Munich"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

People are taking sides about Steven Spielberg's new film "Munich." Our film
critic, David Edelstein, thinks it's the best film of 2005. Richard Schickel
wrote a Time magazine cover story about the movie headlined: Spielberg's
Secret Masterpiece. But "Munich" has also been criticized for questioning the
morality of Israel's counterterrorism tactics following the attack in Munich.
Leon Wieseltier wrote a critical piece in The New Republic saying the film had
no place in its heart for Israel. My guest, Tony Kushner, co-wrote the
screenplay for "Munich." He also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play
"Angels in America."

"Munich" begins with the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the
1972 Olympics in Munich. Most of the film is about the team assembled by the
Mossad to assassinate the leaders of the Palestinian group behind the attack.
Here's a scene where the members of the Mossad team first meet over dinner.

(Soundbite of "Munich")

Unidentified Team Member: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Team Member: We're here to kill the guy who planned Munich. Am
I right?

Unidentified Team Member: It's strange--Isn't it?--to think of oneself as an
assassin.

Unidentified Team Member: Think of yourself as something else, then.

Unidentified Team Member: A soldier in a war.

Unidentified Team Member: I mean, you know how it is, to shoot, to
assassinate people, right? Muzzles on the ...(unintelligible) and all that.
That's great. That's just fantastic, but, I mean, you make dolls in a toy
shop, and you shop for sofas, and you, I don't know what you do.

Unidentified Team Member: Me? I worry.

Unidentified Team Member: So why'd they make you team leader?

Unidentified Team Member: Because he really knows how to cook a brisket.

GROSS: Tony Kushner, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

When Spielberg first asked you to write a screenplay for "Munich," you
declined. Why?

Mr. TONY KUSHNER ("Munich"): Because when he first asked me to do it, I
thought it was going to be very controversial. I don't know that I need the
headache. I thought this is a particular story and it's not necessarily the
story that I would have chosen to tell as the first thing that I'm going to do
dramatically about the Middle East crisis. And it's a movie and I've never
written a feature film before. I've written a screenplay for "Angels in
America" with Mike Nichols, but that was an adaptation of my play, and I'd
never worked on a feature film, and especially not an action film where guys
are, like, running around with guns and it's all very butch and scary.
And--well, you know, really I had never killed anybody in a play before. I
mean, in "Homebody/Kabul" somebody maybe dies off stage, but you'd never know
for sure whether she's dead or not. And that was the closest I've ever come.
And I...

GROSS: Well, people die of AIDS in your work.

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, that's true. Two people die of AIDS in "Angels in
America," but it's not with guns, not with bombs, not with all of that kind of
stuff. I thought this is not going to be a good fit. But I did have, I
think, some kind of hunch that this story is a story that I would be able to
contribute something to and that even though I was afraid of things like
writing, you know, action sequences and making a fool of myself in front of
Steven Spielberg, I thought, you know, it's--there's something in this that's
compelling to me, and I couldn't let it go as much as I didn't want to agree
to take it on. So finally when he came back a second time, I thought, you
know what? I'll just give it a try. I told him that I would write a few
scenes without any contract or anything just to try and write a few scenes and
show them to him and see what he thought and see what I thought. And he liked
what I wrote, and I was sort of excited by what I wrote so we decided to go
ahead and try a first draft.

GROSS: The film "Munich" has proven to be controversial in many ways.

Mr. KUSHNER: Tell me about it.

GROSS: Let's start with one of the basic ways, which is that it's based on a
book called "Vengeance" by George Jonas, and the book is based on the account
of a man who was anonymous in the book. He was given the name Avner for the
book, but the real person remained anonymous. And he claimed to be a Mossad
agent who was part of this assassin team tracking down people--you know,
Palestinian terrorist leaders after the Munich hostage crisis.

Mr. KUSHNER: Right.

GROSS: So critics of this book say, `We don't really know who this guy is.
This guy wasn't really a Mossad agent. I mean, his credibility has been
challenged.' So how did you feel just, like, on first base there even using
that book as the basis of the film?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, I began the process of working on the script by asking
everyone involved, people who had already been involved, about the veracity,
how verifiable this book was. I did my own kind of, you know, research, I
mean, the kind of research that somebody like me is capable of doing, which is
to say, you know, as thorough as I could make it, although I don't have access
to the kind of people that would be able to verify or disprove this book. All
of the people who have discredited the book or attempted to discredit the book
are, you know, ex-Mossad agents and people who are speaking on conditions of
anonymity and offer no evidence. The existence of this program is something
that Israel has sort of denied and refused to deny at the same time...

GROSS: The whole assassination program that you're talking about?

Mr. KUSHNER: The whole assassination program is--you know, it's a covert
operation, and the files on it are not open. And also given the fact this is
historical fiction, I felt that it was completely legitimate to proceed. When
you encounter a work of historical fiction, there are two things that you
should ask. One is: Did this thing happen? And the second one is: Did it
happen this way? And the answer to the first question is--or should be in a
historical fiction, yes, it did happen, because if the answer is no, it didn't
happen, then it's not historical fiction. It has no basis in history at all.

If the answer to the second question is, you know, yes, it happened this way,
then great. But the answer, I think, can also legitimately be no, it didn't
happen this way. That's why we call it a fiction. It's based on history, but
it's not purporting to be a documentary. You can't take what's in the film
"Munich" as a blow-by-blow factual account of how these Palestinian men were
assassinated. You can take it as a given and it is, in fact, I think now part
of the historical record that the Mossad did assassinate these Palestinian
men. We didn't make up the Palestinians or the fact that they were
assassinated or the fact that they were assassinated in a program of targeted
assassinations by Israel. What we did invent, to a certain extent, based on
this book "Vengeance" is the characters of these Mossad agents carrying out
this operation and the arc of their story. And we feel that that's completely
and entirely within the realm of what any mature, sophisticated audience
should understand by the term `historical fiction.'

GROSS: Well, you know, the film actually opens with, you know, a credit or a
caption that says: Inspired by a true story. So...

Mr. KUSHNER: `Inspired by real events' is the actual wording.

GROSS: `Inspired by real events,' exactly. So all it claims to be is
inspired by those events.

Mr. KUSHNER: Right.

GROSS: But how do you feel about that? How do you feel about really mixing
fact and fiction in a way where the border between the two is completely
unclear to the audience?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, I don't think it should be completely unclear because an
audience has the resources to check afterwards or before the fact about what's
there on the historical record. I think that also if you've done your job
well--and I think we've done our job pretty well with this--you can sort of
tell on the basis of what's being presented in the film or in the book or play
what's likely to be invention--dramatic invention and what isn't. And I think
that that blending of fact and fiction is, you know, something that's been
going on in fiction and drama since the Greeks. So I think that it's--I think
it's completely legitimate as long as audiences can be counted on not to
believe that they're watching--not to become confused and believe that they're
watching a documentary, which, of course, they aren't.

GROSS: There's a new book called "Striking Back" by Aaron Klein, who's a
former Mossad agent and is now a journalist.

Mr. KUSHNER: Right.

GROSS: He's Israeli, and he tells the story of Munich and the attempts to
assassinate the people behind the hostage assassinations. And he challenges a
couple things in the film. At least, in his interview on ALL THINGS
CONSIDERED there were two things that he challenged. One, in the movie the
Mossad assassination team buys information from a French family, a family that
specializes in giving you information to locate people who don't want to be
located...

Mr. KUSHNER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...such as, you know, people who were underground. So that's how the
Israelis track down their targets in the film is through this French family.
Aaron Klein says that's a total fiction. The Mossad was not relying on anyone
but themselves in gathering intelligence. He also says that--well, let's
start with that one and I'll give you the next one afterwards. Was that
one--was that something you made up for the movie?

Mr. KUSHNER: No. It's in "Vengeance." The character--I mean, the man that
the character of Avner is based on absolutely maintains that this is the way
it was done.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KUSHNER: There certainly were people in the late '60s, early '70s when
there were a number of revolutionary movements afoot throughout Europe, there
were people who brokered apartments, meeting places, arranged meetings and
traded information, and it seemed to be plausible. Whether or not it actually
was a French family or someone else, whether it was information supplied by
the Mossad or not, doesn't seem to me to be particularly of any significance
in terms of any of the ambitions that "Munich" has as a film. So, you know,
we believe that it's true. The people who wrote "Vengeance" disagree with him
and I don't see any reason to believe him instead of them. I mean, again,
does it alter anything significant, of any real meaning or importance in the
film? And it doesn't.

GROSS: Aaron Klein, who wrote the new book about Munich, he disagrees with
another premise in the movie. You know, in the movie, Avner, who's the kind
of lead assassination in the Mossad team...

Mr. KUSHNER: Right.

GROSS: ...he--as the assassinations progress and as he has more experience at
this, he starts to really question not only the morality behind the
assassinations, but the practicality of it. He starts to wonder, does one
assassination just lead to a retaliatory action against the Israelis, and by
knocking off Palestinian leaders, will there just be new leaders taking their
place, and is the whole process just adding to the cycle of violence instead
of stopping it? What Aaron Klein says is that he spoke with and interviewed
more than 50 sources, most of them ex-Mossad agents and commanders and
leaders, and he didn't come across anyone who had doubts. He says they're all
very proud of what they did. Are you confident that people within this team
really had the kind of doubts that you have them expressing in the film
"Munich"?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, I mean, first of all, I'm confident that the man who the
character Avner is based on had doubts. I mean, he himself told me before we
even began filming that the arc of his doubting is not identical to that of
the character in the film which, again, is a work of fiction. I'm absolutely
confident and I think that I only do honor to Mossad agents by saying that
people who do this kind of work must ask questions about the work. I don't
think that it does anyone any credit particularly to say that they, you know,
committed acts of violence. And we're talking about targeted assassinations
here, so it's a particularly gray area morally, which I think has been
forgotten in a lot of the criticism of the movie. I think it would do them no
credit to show them as people who never asked questions about what they were
doing and never had any doubts.

GROSS: My guest is Tony Kushner. He co-wrote the screenplay for "Munich."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tony Kushner. He co-wrote the screenplay for "Munich."

There are people who have criticized the film both in Israel and in the United
States for having...

Mr. KUSHNER: And in Egypt...

GROSS: And in Egypt, right.

Mr. KUSHNER: ...and in Britain and in France and, you know, from every
conceivable...

GROSS: This specific criticism I want to get to is for creating a moral
equivalency between what the Palestinians were doing in kidnapping and killing
the athletes and what the Israeli Mossad team did in assassinating Palestinian
leaders.

Mr. KUSHNER: Again...

GROSS: How do you address it?

Mr. KUSHNER: OK. I mean, again, my feeling is very strongly that this charge
is an attempt to silence and to sort of short-circuit the discussion that the
film is intending to catalyze. I think that it is completely legitimate to
ask questions about policies such as targeted assassination or--for instance,
to use something from the more contemporary political scene, torture--to ask
questions about these things both in terms of their morality and in terms of
their efficacy without being accused of making some kind of equivalence. I
mean, to say that the people in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib were tortured and
that torture is not right, is not to say that torturing them is as bad as
driving an airplane into the World Trade Center. I think this is a bogus
charge, and I--it seems to me to have, again, no bearing on the film. I think
anybody who goes to see "Munich" will find a movie that has a high degree of
moral complexity and, I believe, moral sophistication.

GROSS: Let me read you one of the criticisms from the Palestinian point of
view. This comes from Mohammad Daoud, who apparently was one of the planners
of Munich, and he's very angry that he wasn't consulted by Spielberg.

Mr. KUSHNER: Right.

GROSS: And Spielberg has said that he wanted to make the movie a prayer for
peace. So Daoud says, `If he really wanted to make it a prayer for peace, he
should have listened to both sides of the story and reflected reality rather
than serving the Zionist side alone.' So how do you react to Mohammad Daoud?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, you know, I mean, Mr. Daoud, I have to point out, has not
seen the film, apparently.

GROSS: Right, he said he hadn't seen the film when he made this comment.

Mr. KUSHNER: I'm not a friend of his, but this is part of what he's com--you
know, saying, so he can certainly buy a ticket and go see the movie. I felt
no need and Steven felt no need to go and seek him out. There were
Palestinians who absolutely were consulted, people who--Palestinian people who
worked on the film and Palestinian actors who were in the film whose input was
invaluable in shaping the film. So Mr. Daoud is, you know, completely
incorrect in saying that they were not consulted. I absolutely will concur
that this is a film about--it's an Israeli story. It's a Jewish story. It
never could have been, given the story that we decided to tell, a story that
gave full measure to the history of Palestinian suffering. I, you know, think
such a movie should be made, but, you know, that's not "Munich." "Munich" is
about something else.

The amount of time we've given to Palestinian characters to talk about this,
which isn't a whole lot, has made some people on the other side of the
equation incredibly angry, people who feel that Palestinians should never be
allowed to open their mouths and explain anything because that's simply, you
know, aiding the enemy. You know, these are the kind of controversies that we
sort of hoped the film would bring out into the open, and we trust in people
to listen to them and make decisions about what's right and what's wrong.

GROSS: From what I've been reading, Steven Spielberg hired a couple of
consultants to help, I think, with the publicity of the movie. And one of the
people he hired was Dennis Ross, who was a Middle East negotiator during the
Clinton administration.

Mr. KUSHNER: Right.

GROSS: And I thought, `Is this what it comes to? To make a movie about the
Middle East, you actually have to hire a Middle East peace negotiator, too.'

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, in part, because Dennis' expertise in the area and his
familiarity with the area was actually valuable in terms of the film. I mean,
Dennis read the script and watched dailies with Steven and with me, and...

GROSS: So what kind of advice did he give you?

Mr. KUSHNER: I mean, he--you know, I think one of the most important things
that Dennis stressed, for me at least, was that he continually admonished us
to make sure that the audience understood the context in which this film--the
story of the film is unfolding. This is 1972, that the Munich Olympics
massacre was sort of a new thing in the world, that it took Israel completely
by surprise and was, you know, an immense national trauma on the order of 9/11
and that the policy of targeted assassinations that, in a sense, commenced
with Munich was born in that context. And Dennis felt that it was immensely
important that we made sure that people understood that, which is not say
necessarily that that meant that we gave it our approval or disapproval,
because actually I think that one of the things that I'm proudest of in the
film is that it doesn't prescribe action. It asks questions about action,
which makes some people very uncomfortable.

GROSS: What questions do you think it asks?

Mr. KUSHNER: I think it asks questions about the legitimacy, ethically and
also strategically, of a policy of targeted assassination, the cost of
counterterrorism as a response to terrorism. I think it asks questions about
terrorism, I mean, I think both in the script and also in the incredibly
powerful way that Steven filmed these actors, who I think give rather
remarkable performances, including some of the actors who were playing
terrorists. The people in the film who do very, very, very bad things, things
that you don't approve of, are, because of the power of the way that Steven
filmed them and the power of the performances, still absolutely recognizable
as human beings, and that's a profoundly uncomfortable and upsetting place to
be. And I think that's really the great thing that film can do. It's a
reason to make a film rather than to, let's say, write a position paper about
Middle East peace negotiations. And I think that that's--in an arena as
complicated and tortured as this arena is, it's important--I think that's
where art can make an important contribution to the discussion.

GROSS: I have a theory about the film "Munich," and it's this--and tell me if
there's any truth to this--that one reason why he wanted to make "Munich" was
to tell the story of the Mossad assassination team and to raise, you know,
complex ethical questions and practical questions about this type of
retaliation, but also to make an action film with Jewish characters in it
because I think, you know, most action films aren't about characters who are
identified as being Jewish.

Mr. KUSHNER: I think that's absolutely true. I would say the only thing I
would add to that is I think he genuinely wanted to make a film that
commemorated the murdered Olympic athletes, which the International Olympic
Committee has refused to do for kind of appalling reasons. And I think Steven
wanted to make sure that people remembered Munich, which I think is one of the
reasons that it appears over and over again in the film like a traumatic
memory that won't be forgotten.

But certainly I think the idea of a Jewish action film is absolutely part of
what--I mean, it's something that he said to me, I mean, so I think your
theory is correct.

GROSS: Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for "Munich." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up: Brian Walker talks about comics. His father created the
strips Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. Brian now writes Hi and Lois, and he
co-edited a new history of American comics. Also, more with Tony Kushner.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tony Kushner. He
co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's new film "Munich." He's
best-known for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Angels In America" and
the Emmy Award-winning HBO adaptation. He also wrote the play
"Homebody/Kabul" and the musical "Caroline, or Change."

As we've established, like, you've never done an action film or any film
before, you know, but like action isn't...

Mr. KUSHNER: Or any action before. People don't...

GROSS: Action isn't your thing.

Mr. KUSHNER: People don't actually do anything in my plays. They just stand
around and talk.

GROSS: So what were some of the things you had to learn in order to write a
film that's, in part, an action film and are there films that you went back to
study?

Mr. KUSHNER: Oh, I wish I could say that I went back and studied. Since
making "Munich," I've come--I've just been on a Clint Eastwood binge and
watching all the Sergio Leone films. I didn't really study film action--I
mean, when I was working on "Angels," I gave Mike the script in hourlong
segments and the first hourlong segment that I gave him had, you know, point
of view--we see the camera zooming from here to there, all this sort of
gobbledygook--and Mike read it and said, you know, `What are you doing? This
is nonsense. You don't know anything about making the movie.' So I--and, you
know--I mean, he didn't say this because he's very modest, but, you know,
basically what he was saying was, `I'm Mike Nichols and I don't really need
you to tell me how to--what to do with the camera.' And he said, you know,
just tell me what you think generally happens in the film and what they say.
And that was hugely liberating.

So when I started working with Steven on "Munich" I thought I can try because
it's my job to figure out how to construct this action sequence. And I've
certainly seen every film Spielberg's made, so I kind of know what it might
feel like if it were a Spielberg action sequence. But ultimately, of course,
putting this together is going to be something that he's going to do and I
don't have to worry about it all that much.

And I came up with things that I think had a real impact on the way that
certain action scenes were filmed. One thing that I think had an impact was
that I paid very, very close attention to the actual physical carnage that
each of these actions entailed on human bodies. And I think that the
specificity of--I mean, sort of repeated insistence on the camera spending
time looking at a corpse riddled with bullets or a rib cage hanging from a
ceiling fan after a bomb has blown up, I think that impacted the sort of
general, you know, sort of dark tenor of the film.

GROSS: Do you remember actually watching on TV the coverage of the Munich
Olympics when the Israeli athletes were kidnapped, because you know, a lot of
that coverage is actually used in the movie. The movie opens with a really
interesting sequence in which the actual TV coverage of the time is used to
tell the story of what happened. Do you remember seeing that for real in
1972?

Mr. KUSHNER: Right. I do. I remember bits and pieces of it. I think I
remember. It was a long time ago. I think I remember the moment when one of
the fedayeen comes out on the balcony, or at least I remember seeing it. It
may have been, you know, not the actual live moment, because I don't know what
time of the day that was aired. But I certainly remember seeing it at that
point, and feeling, I think as most people did, a kind of a sense of horror
and fear and confusion about what on Earth was going on. But I found it very
frightening. I think I found it very frightening as a Jewish kid. It had a
certain resonance with other terrible things that had happened in Munich and
in Germany. And, you know, to--ancestors of mine in pogroms and Eastern
Europe, I mean, it felt like all of those things. And seeing my parents, you
know, in mourning when the ending was announced and it was so horrendous.

GROSS: There were Israeli actors and Arab actors who performed in Munich.
Did they get along on the set? I mean, were there the kind of political
dialogues on the set that are happening outside of the movie now when people
go to see it and they debate the meaning of the film?

Mr. KUSHNER: Yeah, absolutely. When we filmed the Munich Olympic massacre
itself, which was done in a sports stadium in Budapest, the actors were all
either Jewish-American or Israeli-American--Jewish-American or Israeli actors,
and Palestinian or Arab actors. And they were tremendously concerned
about--nobody's allowed to see the entire script, so these guys were
incredibly worried about, politically, what we were up to. The Israeli actors
and the Jewish-American actors were nervous that we were doing something
anti-Israel. The Palestinians and the Arab actors were worried that we were
doing something that would show them all as just terrorists without any souls.
So there was a tremendous amount of discussion, because people were taking
care of one another. Everybody sort of recognized that this was a really
difficult thing we were doing and we were also filming something that was so
horrible that people were in a very sort of raw state emotionally. And for
the most part, everybody was incredibly careful and listened to one another.
And I think actors from both sides really impacted one another. And there are
conversations that I had with both Israeli and Jewish-American actors and with
Palestinian actors--really had a big impact on me, and I know that they had on
Steven.

GROSS: So can you point to any one thing where you feel like you changed your
mind in any way about the Middle East based on either the research that you
did for the movie, the making of the movie, the dialogues that you had with
Jewish and Arab actors on the set of the movie? Any of those things; did it
change your thinking in any way?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, I would say the movie in a certain sense made me ask
certain questions about being too reflexively anti--I'm not a pacifist--but
being too reflexively anti-militarist. That these questions about whether or
not practices that I don't believe are ethically justifiable, like targeted
assassination, whether or not these practices are in some senses necessary, or
in certain circumstances, necessary or justified. I think that I don't have
any ans--I'm not saying that they are, but I would say that after the filming
was done, I was less certain than I was before starting the filming, that they
were absolutely without any justification. I think that I got lost, in a
certain sense, in the murk of the situation, which is in a way I think a good
place always to be. You should never really feel that you're absolutely
certain about anything because, of course, life is contradictory and doesn't
really welcome absolute certainty. And I think tragedy results more often
from absolute certainties than from people being willing to live in
complexity.

GROSS: Well, Tony Kushner, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, thank you. It's been a real pleasure as always.

GROSS: Tony Kushner co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's new film,
"Munich."

Coming up, a comic strip historian with a family history in comics.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Brian Walker discusses the book he co-edited, "Masters
of American Comics"
TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, Brian Walker, co-edited the new book, "Masters of American Comics,"
a companion to an exhibition presented at the Hammer Museum and the Museum of
Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Walker has not only written and edited more
than a dozen books about comic history, he has a family history in comics.
His father, Mort Walker, created the strips Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois.
Brian now works on Hi and Lois with his brother and is part of the team that
produces Beetle Bailey. He also co-founded the International Museum of
Cartoon Art. In the new book, "Masters of American Comics," Brian Walker has
an essay about Lyonel Feininger, who created the strips The KinderKids and Wee
Willie Winkie's World, which were first published in the Chicago Tribune in
1906.

In your essay about Lyonel Feininger, you quote a speech that was given in
June of 1906 to a group of newspaper executives, and the name of the speech
was: Is the Comic Supplement a Desirable Feature? And the speaker said `The
crude coloring, slap-dash drawing and very cheap and obvious funniness of the
comic supplement cannot fail to debase the taste of readers and render them to
a certain extent incapable of appreciating the finer forms of art.' Was this
a common belief at the turn of the century? That comics were not only crude,
but they were going to be a bad influence on the sensibilities of the readers?

Mr. BRIAN WALKER (Author, "Masters of American Comics"): Yes, I think that
comics have always been seen as sort of a cheap, vulgar entertainment. In the
beginning when they first started publishing comics in Sunday newspapers in
the 1890s, they were attacked by the clergy saying this is, you know--this is
the Lord's Day and there shouldn't be newspapers at all published on Sunday.
And then, by the next decade, the attacks were more specifically directed to
the comics supplement. And there were, at the time, between about 1906 to
about 1913, there was actually quite a movement of educators and people that
were concerned about the morals of children, who objected to kids pulling
pranks on elders, you know, which was actually common. In the, you know,
strips like Buster Brown, they were always dumping water on people or creating
havoc in the household. And--but it never really stuck. I think that the
comics appealed to people and they were popular and they just kept growing,
and the protest movement died down. There were actually some newspapers that
cancelled their comic supplements. They actually stopped publishing comics.

GROSS: Were they pressured to stop?

Mr. WALKER: I think that they--there were groups formed of parents and
educators, religious people. And I think you see this throughout the whole
history of comics, as certainly the Frederick Wertham "Seduction of the
Innocent" chapter in the 1950s were--which was directed specifically
against comic books at the time. That--it was argued that they led directly
to juvenile delinquency. And we see the same thing now with video games and
it just goes on and on. But it's something that sort of crops up periodically
in the history of comics.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your place in cartooning. You were
actually born into cartooning. About a couple of years before you were born,
your father started Beetle Bailey. What was the original premise of Beetle
Bailey? And this was...

Mr. WALKER: Well, Beetle Bailey...

GROSS: ...in what? Like 1950?

Mr. WALKER: Beetle Bailey started in September, 1950. Beetle Bailey
originally was a college student. My father had done a series of magazine
cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post starring a college student named
Spider. It was based on his own experiences at the University of Missouri and
his fraternity. And the strip really didn't take off the way they hoped. It
was only in about 50 newspapers after the first year of syndication. At that
time, the Korean War was heating up and he decided to have Beetle enlist. He
thought maybe that could save the strip, and it did. The strip picked up some
newspapers and characters like Sarge and General Halftrack entered the cast.
And the strip started to pick up in popularity. At the end of the Korean War,
ironically, they were trying to sort of get back to the spit-and-polish days
of peace time, and the Army felt like Beetle Bailey was disrespectful to the
officers. And it was cancelled in the Stars & Stripes newspaper in the
Pacific. And, of course, the syndicate ran with it and said the Army doesn't
have a sense of humor. It turned into a national news story and, in the
process, Beetle Bailey picked up about 100 new subscribers and it was on its
way to success.

GROSS: You know, a lot of kids of your generation, they had their parents
take away their comic books. And they thought cartoons and comics were a bad
influence. Your father was a comic book artist. So did you grow up
surrounded by comics?

Mr. WALKER: Absolutely. I think I was the only kid my age whose father had
a subscription to Mad magazine, and I used to steal them out of my father's
studio and put them under my bed. And he'd say, `Who stole my Mad magazines?
But--and a lot of his friends were cartoonists, so, you know, they became sort
of an extended family. John Cullen Murphy, who did Prince Valiant for many
years was my godfather. And Dik Browne, who drew Hi and Lois from the
beginning and created another strip, Hagar the Horrible, actually performed my
wedding ceremony. And so, these were sort of like my uncles and it was just a
big extended family.

GROSS: How did you end up taking over Hi and Lois and also working on your
father's Beetle Bailey? He's still working on it as well?

Mr. WALKER: Yes. My father still draws Beetle Bailey. He's been doing it
for 55 years now. I think he's the longest tenured artist on his original
creation. I think that he wanted to get some--particularly with Hi and
Lois--back in the 1980s, I was just getting married and starting my own
family. And he felt that Hi and Lois needed some new, fresh blood; some, you
know, writers that actually had little kids at home and were changing diapers.
And so, he asked me to start writing for Hi and Lois. And also, with Beetle
Bailey, he was getting some flack for the Ms. Buxley character who
was--people were accusing him of sexism and...

GROSS: Describe the character and how she was drawn.

Mr. WALKER: Well, Ms. Buxley is blonde and beautiful and she's General
Halftrack's secretary. She entered the strip in 1971, and I think that he
felt that Beetle Bailey needed more female characters. And he thought it was
kind of a--the joke is really on the general. He's this old coot, you know,
who's kind of over the hill a little bit. And he's got this beautiful
secretary and he, you know, gets all excited when she walks through the room.
And I think it was funny in the beginning. I think as things progressed and
I--some of the women readers and editors objected to it, felt that she was the
butt of the jokes, she was made to look stupid. And so, we tried to modify
it.

GROSS: Was that your job to, like, update her for...

Mr. WALKER: Well, it was my assignment--was one of the things I did in the
beginning. And one of the things I discovered was that Ms. Buxley very
rarely said anything, you know. She really truly was a sex object, you know.
And so, more and more I had her kind of get the last laugh on the general by
coming--you know, by delivering the punch line and sort of putting him down a
little bit more, and gave her a little more personality, I think, as time has
developed.

GROSS: So what are some of the other generational differences you had to deal
with when you started working on Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois?

Mr. WALKER: Well, I think that, you know, even now I'm--certainly my father
and I have sort of different political sensibilities. You know, we've argued
about politics going back to the '60s and the Vietnam War and the rest of it.
And, you know, it--even though politics don't enter into Beetle too often, you
know, there is a certain kind of a anti-establishment feel to it. And I try
to sneak stuff like that into it. And he says, `You know, this isn't
Doonesbury. You're not Garry Trudeau. But--so, you know, we lock horns
occasionally on stuff like that. You know, it is frustrating for all
cartoonists and, my father foremost among them, how conservative the funnies
pages are. You know, there's just things that are done on television and done
in the movies and one in me--all forms of media and advertising. You just
can't do it on the comics page. And I think particularly older established
strips, the people expect them to be sort of squeaky clean. And it's
frustrating for us because we're trying to compete with the other media, and
we just--there's just so much that we can't do.

GROSS: My guest is Brian Walker. He's one of the editors of the new book,
"Masters of American Comics." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Brian Walker, one of the editors of the new book, "Masters
of American Comics." His father, Mort Walker, was the creator of the
newspaper strips, Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. Brian Walker works on both
of them now. When we left off, Brian Walker was saying that older,
established newspaper strips, like the ones he does, are expected to be
squeaky clean.

What's an example of something you'd like to do, but you know you can't get
away with it on the comics page?

Mr. WALKER: Well, even in Hi and Lois I did, I thought, a very sort of
innocuous gag. There's a strip called Rose is Rose, and I admire the sort of
almost physical attraction between the husband and wife in that strip. And I
said, `You know, Hi and Lois are married. They've had children. Obviously,
she's attractive, you know. He's attractive to her. God forbid, that you
ever show them sleeping together or anything, you know.' And so, I did
one--it was around the time of the--one of the Olympics, and she's running
around this--you know, doing her usual marathon, you know, running the kids
to the--to school and grocery shopping and going to work and trying to keep
all the ends together. In the very end, she's just walking in exhausted, you
know, at the end of the day with her nightgown on ready to go to bed. And
Hi's in bed going, `Want to go for the gold?'

And my editor at King Features said you can't do this, you know. And I said,
`Why not? They're married. You know, they sleep together.' And so, I
basically had to edit that and change the punch line. And, you know, it's
frustrating. Even something as tame as that is not acceptable. And
oftentimes, the excuse is, well, if it's a Sunday page, it's in the Sunday
newspaper, kids read that and they're going to ask their mother, `What does
that mean?' You know, and the parents are going to be forced to explain that
and it creates an awkward situation.

We certainly don't want editors getting mad at us and canceling the strip, and
readers writing letters. And that is usually what happens when you do
something that's a little off color or sort of pushing the envelope. We have
readers that have been reading our strips for decades, and they're sort of
been accustomed to a certain type of humor. And it might upset them if we do
something that's too edgy.

GROSS: So do you feel like the sensibility that's really being protected here
is the sensibility of your older readers as opposed to the sensibility of
younger readers? I'm just thinking younger readers, if they're actually
reading anything in the newspaper, are exposed to video games and all kinds of
cartoons on TV and all kinds of shows on TV. I mean, I think anything that
would happen in Hi and Lois would be exceptionally tame compared to what...

Mr. WALKER: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...most young viewers see.

Mr. WALKER: And I think that we frequently get letters that start off like,
I've been reading Hi and Lois for years, but the strip on last Sunday really
offended me and I'm not going to read it anymore.' Or, you know, that's
typically the kind of thing we get. And I do think that newspaper editors
don't want to admit it, but that their audience is getting older and there's
an aging newspaper readership that has been reading the paper, you know,
their whole lives and has been following the comic strips. And consequently,
those are the ones that have the most popularity.

But we also ge--it's curious, because we occasionally get letters from people
that object to all kinds of things that we do. Like, for instance, if the
kids are not strapped properly and their seat belts are not put on properly.
We got a letter a number of years ago. Lois was giving Trixie a bath. And in
one panel, she got up to get the towel. And so Trixie's in the bathtub for
one panel by herself, and a reader in Florida wrote in and said, `Leaving a
young infant like that unattended in a bathtub is dangerous.' And the editor
ran it on the editorial page. It said `Reader objects to, you know,
abandoning--abandoned child in bathtub.' You know, and I had to call and
apologize. I did an interview. And, you know, I argued, `Well, she
just--most people keep the towels right in the bathroom. She just got up and
pulled it out of the linen closet, you know. She didn't walk away and leave
Trixie unattended.' But, you know, I said, this is just ridiculous that
someone would go to the trouble to write a letter and get all worked up over
this. But then I stopped and I thought, you know, this is actually a
compliment. She thinks of Trixie as real. You know, this is just a character
that's drawn in pen and ink on a piece of paper. But to this particular
reader, this baby's life was in jeopardy.

So we have to constantly keep reminding ourselves that these characters are
very real. People read it every day. They take it very seriously and, you
know, that's actually a testament and a compliment to the work that we do.

GROSS: When you were growing up, were there any incidents in your life that
you recognized in your father's strip?

Mr. WALKER: Oh, absolutely. I--you know, the strip kind of reads almost as
a diary of our family life.

GROSS: This Hi and Lois that you're talking about?

Mr. WALKER: Yes. In the early 1980s, I actually did a book, a collection
of--sort of a retrospective of the best of Hi and Lois. And I went back and I
read the strip from the beginning and read through the--all of it. And it was
just amazing that--you know, the family vacations. And I came across one
specific episode where they were--Chip was fighting with his fa--with Hi about
wearing blue jeans to school. And I remember back in the late '60s there was
what was called a dress code at, you know, my junior high school in
Connecticut. And, you know, boys weren't allowed to wear blue jeans and girls
weren't allowed to wear pants. And, you know, it was a very strict dress
code. And, of course, that was immediately what we wanted to do. Put the
blue jeans on and wear them to school and then get sent home to change our
pants. And I remember one time, actually, my father made sure that I had a
nice pair of khakis on my way out. And I actually hid the blue jeans in the
bushes on--out on the front lawn. Changed into my blue jeans. Went to school
and immediately got sent home. And my father said, `How did you end up with
blue jeans on?' Well, I actually found this, you know, as a gag in Hi and
Lois. That was at--right at about that time, and it kind of revealed to me
that at the same time my father was disciplining me and scolding me for
misbehaving, he was gathering gag material for his comic strip.

GROSS: And that made you feel how?

Mr. WALKER: It--a light went on in my head and now I do the same thing with
my family. And, you know, my kids will do things and, you know, it--you know,
it seems painful or, you know, you're struggling through these issues with
your family. But I can always use them for gag material later on.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WALKER: OK. Well, it's nice talking with you.

GROSS: Brian Walker is an editor of the new book, "Masters of American
Comics." It's a companion to exhibitions that run until March 12th at the
Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Walker
co-founded the International Museum of Cartoon Art which is now called the
National Cartoon Museum, and will re-open late this year in the Empire State
Building.

(Credits)

I'm Terry Gross.

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with Jim Amoss, editor of the New
Orleans Times-Picayune, about carrying on in spite of the hurricane and its
aftermath, and publishing investigative stories and editorials that have been
widely praised. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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