Digesting 'Red Meat'
Max Cannon was joking around with a good friend recently. Just to rattle his buddy a bit, Cannon ran at him wildly, screaming."Oh, yeah, that was really scary," said his friend. "It was like Winnie the Pooh running at me.""Winnie the Pooh" would probably not be the first words to jump to mind when you imagine the creator of the cartoon "Red Meat." Fans of the strip would envision a witty, darkly hilarious, edgy fellow; critics would more likely think of the criminally insane.In conversation -- and apparently in person -- Cannon is the former, with a good bit of Pooh thrown in. Bright, articulate, gentle, thoughtful about many issues, concerned about other people -- the guy's a regular sweetheart.His cartoon, "Red Meat," is published in 50 newspapers and magazines around the country. Regular readers may have noticed the steady flow of letters to the editor published in many of those publications since "Red Meat" debuted last October. Cannon's publicist, Jennifer Powers, says a rash of critical letters appears in the beginning, and then the tide turns, and "Red Meat" fans begin to show support.Other readers have expressed surprise that anyone would care so deeply about mere cartoons, but the debate over "Red Meat" has been long and heartfelt on both sides. Everyone seems to feel strongly about it, and Cannon is no different: He thinks humor is essential to life as a human being. He may not agree with what you think is funny, but he'll defend to the end your right to laugh."Laughter helps us deal with the unthinkable," Cannon said in a recent telephone interview. "It's a singular phenomenon that only humans have; animals don't have it. It helps us deal with things we can't deal with otherwise. It explains the so called gallows humor, battlefield humor. In the absence of all else, it's a way to deal with things."Cannon, 34, became interested in cartoons as a child, then abandoned them until he was a painting student at the University of Arizona. At a friend's suggestion, he tried cartooning, and the campus paper published Cannon's first strips. The editors dropped his work "when they became uncomfortable with the subject matter," he says; the local alternative, the Tucson Weekly, picked "Red Meat" up soon after. In less than 10 years, "Red Meat" has become successful enough to support its creator ("although I do live humbly," Cannon says).His sense of humor may be dark, but he doesn't apologize for what makes him laugh. "I've always thought Beavis and Butthead were really funny," he says. "They deal with what everyone finds funny but would deem inappropriate. And they don't apologize for it either, which is how humor should be. Just the most puerile humor is genuinely funny to me as long as it's done well."I think a vast majority of people are afraid to think the thoughts they already think," he says. "They don't like to be reminded that they think those thoughts. 'Red Meat' hints at things; there's never violence in the strip; there's never profanity. But the gist of it causes the little dirty movies to go on in readers' heads. Some people get very offended by anything that stimulates them to think bad thoughts."Readers often ask whether Max Cannon -- or his fans -- actually find humor in depictions of people picking on each other, or abusing their children or spouses."No, no, no," Cannon says. "Not at all. But I think the way people react to spouse abuse is ironic and ineffective and amusing. It's a reality that goes on in our culture. How are you going to deal with it? By turning away from it?"I think the only way to deal with any kind of social problem is to look at it and look at it hard. You have to acknowledge that it exists and to acknowledge what it's really all about before you can heal that problem.""The way that people deal with problems by not dealing makes me want to cry," he says. "Sometimes it makes me angry. My way of dealing with that which is difficult to face is humor; that's the tool with which I can look at something that is otherwise too difficult."Cannon has certainly received his share of criticism from readers who find his work tasteless, disturbing, or simply unfunny. He takes the negative criticism with big grains of salt -- and points out that he receives far more Tshirt and book orders from Rochester than negative letters."Oh, my God," he says. "My response is, it's only a cartoon. It's a humorous comedy situation; it's words and pictures. If Wile E. Coyote gets an anvil dropped on his head and smashes into the bottom of a canyon, should we take it off the air?"But I also want to say to these people, 'Why don't you go out in the real world and see what changes you can affect?'" Although his critics include people who are social activists, he loses patience with those who limit their efforts to letterwriting."People who just write letters to the newspaper let themselves off the hook," he says. "They feel like they've contributed towards changing something, and really, they've done nothing. It's the coward's way."'Andy Capp' is in a lot of daily papers. He actually beats his wife. It's not implied; it's shown. He gets drunk and he beats his wife up. I would never show that. Popeye used to beat everything up in sight."And "Red Meat" is not reality or a guidebook for living, Cannon says. The strip may deal with sensitive subject matters -- cruelty, for example -- but it's in a humorous way to get people thinking about a topic. The cartoon discusses violence and abuse, but doesn't cause either one, says Cannon."All humor is based on some kind of cruelty, and that is the way it's always been," says Cannon. "It's a cruel world. If we can't laugh about it, then we've lost our edge. I'm merely reflecting certain elements of life; I'm not making this stuff up.And if people are offended by elements that exist around us in the real world, I can't be responsible for that."Cannon rejects the suggestion that "Red Meat" is shock humor."I'm not trying to shock people," he says. "Not at all. My intention is to amuse. If I deal with a harsher subject matter, it's because those are the things we need to get some perspective on. And a lot of people aren't offended at all. They're amused. It lightens the load.""But whenever there's resistance, there's thinking going on, and that's positive," he says. "Something is fighting to emerge. I tend to think that most of the people in the world have their heads screwed on straight; I think people as a whole are moving towards becoming more enlightened."Cannon himself rarely gets upset or offended by things he sees elsewhere in print, although he's an insatiable reader of anything he can lay hands on."It disappoints me when people are afraid to think freely or let others express themselves freely," he says. "The idea that somehow thinking should be censored upsets me.""I think political correctness is a sort of fascistic undercurrent in our culture," he says. "It is literally telling people that they can only think in certain ways. It's double think. And it's funny that it's associated with a liberal way of thinking, when it's fascism at its purist and finest. It's thought censorship, and that is not the road to freedom at all."Cannon still paints, and does mostly colorful, figurative work. "Red Meat" he draws on the computer, using a technique he likens to drawing with an "Etch-a-Sketch."It may seems surprising that a painter would choose to use identical images repeatedly, from panel to panel and from week to week. Cannon says he has good reason for doing so."It creates a friendly, pleasant icon, with familiar and comfortable images," he says. "And of course, textually, the strip's doing something else; subtextually it goes a different way. It's a very American sort of commentary. We like to pretend that we're innocent and clean and pure -- that we're perfect -- but underneath it all, we're human."These contradictions echo his early perceptions of life, Cannon says. He describes his family as squeaky clean and civic»minded; both parents were educators, and his mother taught Sunday school."And my parents are wonderful people," he says. "But always underneath, the human drama goes on. Underneath the suburban purity, the dark underbelly is there. It's there for all of us. And some people just don't want to look at it."Making sense of the world around him is part of his purpose in creating "Red Meat," but he also considers it something basic to all humanity."Everyone is trying to make sense of the world around them," he says. "But some strategies for 'making sense' don't involve accepting everything as a reality. People actually deny what is going on or shut it out somehow, which doesn't do a damn thing in terms of making sense of the world. The truth will occur differently to everyone, but it won't occur at all if you shut things out."Although Cannon doesn't watch television -- he has a set, but it only works with a VCR -- he is a fan of small independent films. Naturally, this raises the topic of the recent documentary film, Crumb, about the life and work of cartoonist R. Crumb."Talk about fearlessly entering into the dark side and looking into the full scope of the truth," Cannon says. "It's a shocking and terrifying film, but an accurate portrait of a real life -- albeit an unusual one. And it tells us something very real about the artist. It's not necessarily flattering, but in some ways it is: It's a story of how one man made sense of things -- how one man triumphed in very oppressive circumstances. What I consider the triumph is that he somehow made sense of it and did something constructive that reached out to a whole lot of people. I think he's honest. That's the best thing an artist can be. I try to be honest."It may sound surprising that Cannon considers his work 'honest,' since the strip smacks more of getting a laugh by any means necessary. He disagrees."I'm being honest as it relates to the form of artwork I do," says Cannon. "I'm trying to do it the best I can, and do it as honestly as possible, and if that upsets people it's because a certain kind of truth offends."Cannon admits to being something of a prankster in person, but he won't play a practical joke on people unless he knows they'll appreciate it. Intentional meanness, he says, is something he doesn't believe in -- which may surprise some readers."I did a cartoon about a kid who was a burn victim," says Cannon, "but you don't know he's a burn victim -- you think he's an alien. He's saying, 'An attack on earth will commence tomorrow!' and in the last panel his mother says, 'You're going to get a spanking if you're late for your appointment with the burn clinic.' And people were enraged. But one guy I knew wrote a letter saying, "Thanks for making burn victims realize that they're normal people."That was the point, says Cannon."It made people recognize their own pitying responses," he says. "I'm not making fun of the burn victim or taking a cheap shot. I'm not making him an object of pity; the implication is that he's just a normal kid. I'm making fun of the people who think, 'Oh, that's just terrible to show a burn victim.' Any horrible insinuation is on the reader's part.""I think it reflects reality in the way that we do abuse the handicapped," says Cannon. "I see it more and more in our culture today. You see 'handicapped' models but they are still these perfect little bodies, just perfect bodies in wheelchairs. They might not even be people that are crippled. It's got to be beautiful. Well, what if it's not beautiful? What if it's disfigurement?"It's still the same fascism. It's people saying, 'We can only take this much; the rest we have to deny and shut out and hide away under the porch.'"I guarantee you handicapped people looking at the strip are going to see something completely different than the average well meaning, pitying person who can't see the handicapped person in a humane way," he says. "Look at Callahan [a handicapped cartoonist], who deals with some of the harshest stuff. His humor is much harsher. I guarantee you it's the people that are shutting themselves away that are so offended by everything. They're afraid to face the real world. Art and literature are easy targets to come down on, and it's easy for people to say, 'This is wrong' when they're looking at a cartoon."The strip's characters are a ragtag crew: a priest (Cannon himself isn't sure what denomination); a demented fellow known as bug-eyed Earl, who seems to have more than a few demons in his closet; a malevolent neighborhood milkman and a little girl, who harass each other continually; and an ordinary suburban father who dresses up in black rubber bondage suits and takes a gun to hunt poodles."The priest is gay," says Cannon. "It's subtle. That's not the whole deal; it just happens to be part of who he is. He's just as flawed as the next person. He's a human being and not a one-note character. I have several friends who are priests -- one of them is gay -- and they love him. They put him up [on display]."He just interacts with people in the community," says Cannon. "But again it's the veneer; it's the image versus the reality of what people are. The priest grapples with the existence of God. In one cartoon, God is Jewish, and in another, God is a giant amphibious rodent; always God has a sense of humor. This Supreme Creator character that appears off screen is the essence of humor. At one point he says to the priest, 'I've always thought of you as a beloved pet hamster.' He's a foil.""The priest is not a good counselor," Cannon says. "We assume that people in the clergy are filled with wisdom and the truth, and some of them may be, but they're just people. I guess a lot of 'Red Meat' is playing around with people's expectations -- An icon versus something else. And when you play around with people's expectations, they either love it or they get pissed off. Or somewhere in the middle."Bug-eyed Earl is the darkest and most disturbing of Cannon's creations; his haunted expression never changes, and he's prone to say things that are truly bizarre. In one strip Earl mentions that his hamster gave birth: "This morning when I looked in the cage, she had ate two of them little babies," Earl says. "What the heck. Had a couple myself.""I really like Earl," says Cannon. "He says things that are disassociated and unacceptable. The way he puts two and two together and doesn't come up with four is amusing."Cannon says he has a friend who is schizophrenic, who has taken a particular liking to Earl."He's the kind of person that most people wouldn't be friends with," says Cannon. "He's the handicapped model that isn't so pretty. A lot of people literally cross the street when they see him coming. But in many Native American cultures, those that are born different are magical because they think outside the box. They have a different perspective that no amount of societal behavioral modification can change. But I celebrate their differentness; my friend is very perceptive and very warm and really nice."The character of Milkman Dan, says Cannon, is a complex hybrid, based on several people Cannon has known."Physically, he's designed after my older brother, who's an air force officer," Cannon says. "He works for the Department of Defense, and when we were younger he was a Boy Scout, very prim. He was tyrannical, but the appearance he liked to give off was a goody two shoes."Milkman Dan's relationship with Karen, the little girl, was suggested by another friend, an ex-Green Beret turned physicist, who teased his daughter relentlessly."He saw the little white lies people would whitewash their lives with," says Cannon. "And he would talk about it. A lot of people thought it was sadistic, because it made people squirm. And when I asked him why he teased his daughter so much he'd say, 'I want to train her not to be a sucker. I want to train her to be clever and think through things and question things.' And surely enough, she's not a chump."And "Red Meat's" Karen, as Cannon says, goes farther: She's a "mean little bugger." She and Milkman Dan go back and forth with their barbs and teasing, and she gives as good as she gets."People level allegations of pedophilia, and I wonder where they get that," says Cannon. "Not from the strip. Our culture is so hot-wired to look for those demons in the architecture. It wasn't intentional on my part, but people keep referring to it."That readers would read pedophilia into his cartoon is indicative of Americans' paranoia about violence and abuse, says Cannon."My father was a school teacher, a very warm human being," says Cannon. "And he thought it was terrible that he couldn't hug the children because school policy frowned on it. It's sad when we can't even nurture our children for the fear of the appearance of impropriety. You figure for that one monster that lurks among the 20,000 people, that's 20,000 hugs that could have been given out, but weren't, because of the monsters that exist in our imagination. That's the real crime.""If we didn't shelter our kids by trying to hide thoughts or ideas from them, then maybe they wouldn't be victims," says Cannon. If children were given accurate information about the real dangers in the world and encouraged to think critically about their environment, they'd be safer, he says."If everybody was paying attention to what the real score was and not the sensationalism you see in the media, we wouldn't be so afraid," he says. "If you paid attention only to news media, you'd think that every other person you met was a killer or rapist. I think people live behind the veil of fear, when the actual real per-capita incidence is fairly low. Odds are, 999 times out of a thousand you could walk the streets fearlessly."Cannon says his suburban childhood was very sheltered and mundane, but he was perceptive enough to able to see that reality was not necessarily as it was presented to him."I saw through the front that was put up versus the real thing that was going on," he says. "Things like: adults have sex, they sometimes drink too much, they swear, women swear, some people cheat on their spouses, violence happens, our civic leaders abuse us at every turn. These are things that kids can know. They can be told; you just might have to tell those stories to kids in a different way. It's all a big opportunity for learning and understanding. But you can't really learn and understand the whole picture of history unless you have the facts."You can reach Max Cannon at www.redmeat.com. His book is available from Blackspring Books, PO Box 708, Tuscon, AZ 85702.