Reviews – Marketing Precedes the Miracle: More Cartoons

Marketing Precedes the MiracleThe Associated Press
Calvin Grondahl says he feels like a character in one of his cartoons, and swears he doesn’t know how he got there. “You know you’re in trouble, but you don’t know why,” Grondahl said of his latest book of cartoons about Mormon culture and the reception it’s received in official church circles.

Marketing Precedes the Miracle is Grondahl’s fourth volume of cartoons, the second that church-owned Deseret Book store has declined to carry, even though the first two were brisk sellers. Brigham Young University spokesman Paul Richards said BYU officials had become concerned about the book—which they had not seen—when they heard Deseret Book had canceled an autograph-signing party.

Deseret Book officials felt that “although it is humorous, it may have been offensive to some people,” Richards said. He said BYU had an autograph session after getting Gordon B. Hinckley’s blessing. Hinckley is first counselor in the church’s First Presidency and president of BYU’s executive committee. It was decided that “those who like it can buy it and those who are offended don’t have to.”

Ron Priddis of Signature Books, Grondahl’s publisher, said at first BYU’s bookstore had indicated the cartoonist and displays of his book would be placed in a prominent location, but he wound up at a reference desk in the sciences and technology section. Grondahl, a BYU graduate, said customers mistook him for a store employee and kept asking him where to find this or that. Roger Toone, Deseret Book retail director, said the company’s decision not to stock Grondahl’s latest at its stores was not based on profitability, but he declined to give the reason. “There is no way we can stock all books and we reserve that right,” Toone said.

All of this discomfiture has a familiar ring to Grondahl, 37, an active Mormon who wishes his critics among the officialdom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would tell him what they find so offensive. “How can you compromise when you don’t know what they object to?” he said. “It may be the title, but I meant no disrespect.”

Marketing Precedes the Miracle is a play on the title of a book by the late church president Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle. Grondahl said it refers to the church’s high-powered public relations efforts. “I think they do a very good job of it,” he said. “So if they’re offended by that, then that has to be discussed . . . because I can’t get inside their heads.” But Grondahl, who served a church mission to New Zealand, isn’t paranoid about reaction to his books or to his work as political cartoonist for the Ogden Standard-Examiner. “I’m not a conspiracy person. And there’s no conspiracy here. Church humor is a relatively new experience.”

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
This bumper crop of ninety-six spritely cartoons, the fourth to delight unstuffy Mormon audiences, has a wider range than most. It includes BYU jokes, missionary jokes, Joseph Smith jokes, frazzled family life jokes, and even outer-space jokes.

Tops in the last category is a theologically oriented elder slugging it out verbally with an alien being while his companion tugs at him and shouts, “Let’s go, Elder.” “He has a body of flesh and bones!” insists the elder. “He has a body of slime and scales,” reiterates the adamant alien. Another gem from the same section is a futuristic Tabernacle where the speaker, bolstered by a two-headed being labeled “First and Second Counselors,” addresses an audience of aliens: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, our church only had six members.”

Or how about these vignettes to tickle the funnybone? In a temple president’s office, a large female shoves a briefcase full of money at the president and demands, “Here! Seal me to Elvis Presley!” Joseph Smith, sleeves rolled up, sloshes in the dishwater muttering, “Translate the plates. Wash the plates . . . Where’s Oliver? He was supposed to dry.”

A well-fed and gaudily adorned Nephite addresses a skeptical audience: “I have labored with mine own hands not to be a burden unto you. . . . laboring on the board of directors of Zarahemla Fuel Supply.” A glazed-eyed boy, obviously concentrating hard, recites: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, ruler, dictators, military juntas, anybody with a gun. . . .” At the “Liberal Mormon Conference,” a speaker is introduced: “At the age of six our next speaker wrote his first essay, ‘Spiritual Equinox of the Paranormal Dimension,’ but it was rejected by the Children’s Friend as being too controversial.”

The Salt Lake Tribune, Pat Bagley
Calvin Grondahl’s fourth book of Mormon cartoons is entitled Marketing Precedes the Miracle. It should have been called Grondahl Unchained. After his third book, Grondahl was told by his image-conscious editor of an image-conscious Salt Lake newspaper not to attempt a fourth. His books were something of an, um, embarrassment to an image-conscious church. Since then, Grondahl has changed jobs and is once again doing mischief. This time the p.r. folks who sold us the Hotel Utah “renovation” can only gnash their teeth in frustration.

What seems to ruffle feathers is Grondahl’s knack for good-naturedly scrambling Mormon theology in a blender. Suddenly the Garden of Eden is not only populated by the first man and first woman, but by dinosaurs and cromagnons as well. His denizens of Hell seem to spring from the leather section of a Fredericks of Hollywood catalogue while Ancient American Prophets exhibit musculature that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger envious.

And if that isn’t enough to addle your metaphysical outlook, he then kicks the church into warp drive and blasts it into the 25th century where it boasts “Hundreds of millions of members” (not all of them human) and cyborg general authorities. Mormon history is also viewed through a kind of fun house mirror. Grondahl’s harried Joseph Smith is plagued by forgetful heavenly messengers, while his long suffering wife Emma tries to make a home in a cosmic Grand Central Station. If Grondahl’s cartoons are occasionally biting, at least he bites everyone equally hard. His book is peopled by straight-arrow Mormons, slovenly Gentiles, liberal Mormons, Born-Again Christians, Quasi-pseudo-Mormon-intellectuals, success-crazed missionaries, and even bible-bashing aliens. And they’re all absurdly funny.

The cartoons are never vicious. A common theme runs through them—to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Every faithful Latter-day Saint who has wrestled with balancing church responsibilities and household obligations will sympathize with Grondahl’s Joseph complaining that he’s either washing plates or translating them. And Relief Society sisters torn between church pronouncements on women in the home and the more mundane realities of economic survival may even find some of the cartoons therapeutic.

Grondahl’s drawings sparkle. They are packed with incidental details casually thrown in that are screamingly funny. Just as paperbacks are a ubiquitous feature of modern society, Grondahl’s Ancient Americans have “plates” scattered about the house with titles like “Trout Fishing” and “Recipes.” Marketing Precedes the Miracle can be found in almost any bookstore around town—except Deseret Book. Reportedly, the reason it refuses to carry it is that four or five of the 94 cartoons were deemed to be in poor taste. An entertaining way to spend your next Family Home Evening would be to buy the book and guess which ones they were.

Utah Holiday, Paul Swenson
Why are Mormons in Weber County laughing? Not because they necessarily have a more-highly developed sense of humor than those elsewhere, but because Utah’s only nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist, Calvin Grondahl, has been set free to plunge back into a highly acclaimed sideline—Mormon cartoons.

During Grondahl’s last years at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, he was placed under enormous pressure to give up his sideline, which had resulted in three hilarious and hot-selling Mormon cartoon books, published by the Sunstone Foundation: Faith-Promoting Rumors, Freeway to Perfection and Sunday’s Foyer. When Grondahl left the Deseret News and was given a freer editorial hand at the Ogden Standard-Examiner, one of the first experiments tried by Editor Randy Hatch was to use Grondahl’s Mormon cartoons in the paper’s weekend church section, in addition to the editorial cartoons and national, international and local subjects that he turned out for the daily editorial page.

While the response was generally positive, the Standard pulled the Mormon cartoons after receiving a few complaining letters. Now the cartoons are back after editors observed the overwhelmingly supportive response Grondahl is receiving for his fourth cartoon book, Marketing Precedes the Miracle, published by Signature Books. At book-signing parties at area bookstores, by phone and by letter, readers have told Grondahl how much the cartoons mean in helping them find the humor in the religious faith.

When Grondahl went to the book-signing parties, because of the occasional complaining phone cal he received at the Standard, he was prepared for detractors. “I was ready to defend myself, but nobody bothered. In fact, everybody I talked to told me how much they loved what I do. If I didn’t know it before, I learned that Mormons really do have a sense of humor. The opposition is apparently very few people. I’ve gained the optimism to realize that there aren’t that many crazies out there.”

Grondahl’s experience with his fourth book was actually the opposite of its title: the miracle preceded the marketing. “I finished seventy cartoons in one week before Christmas in order to make the press deadline. They were proofreading the book while driving down to the printer. It was a miracle of Christmas. I will never do a book that fast again.” Marketing Precedes the Miracle sold out its five-thousand-copy press run during the Christmas season and is now in its second printing. The spelling errors in the hurried first printing have been corrected in the second.

Daily Utah Chronicle, Rosemary Reeve
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people. —1 Peter 2:9

Mormons are weird sometimes.

Most people are weird sometimes, but whether because of Mormons’ numbers, hegemony or enthusiasm, LDS antics often seem a little more noticeable than their gentile counterparts.

Fortunately, Calvin Grondahl, editorial cartoonist for the Ogden Standard Examiner is back with another comic look at the quirks and peculiarities of the LDS community. From obscenely-muscled Book of Mormon heroes to Deseret Book’s inspirational “fluffrock” tapes, Marketing Precedes The Miracle tackles the uniquely Mormon attitudes that make life in Utah so very, very special.

Unfortunately, Grondahl’s trenchant observations have been somewhat overshadowed by the furor following Deseret Book’s refusal to carry Marketing, an action that bespoke LDS officials’ disapproval of the book. Although Brigham Young University does sell Marketing at its bookstore, at a BYU autograph party Grondahl found himself tucked into a distant corner of the store, far away from students and shoppers.

“I was in the information desk, actually,” he told an audience at the Hinckley Institute of Politics this week. “Students were asking me questions like, “Could you help me find this book?” And they were looking at me funny, too. Finally I figured out that they were looking at my beard. You just can’t have a beard at BYU.”

Unacceptable facial hair or not, Grondahl has found a literally silver lining in the controversy.

“We sold the first printing in one week,” he said. “So the publicity didn’t hurt us at all.”

Although the church has taken no official stance against the book, he’s aware of “bad vibes” emanating from the LDS hierarchy, Grondahl said. He left his post as editorial cartoonist for the church-owned Deseret News about a year ago, and he still rankles at hints of religious control.

“Most Mormons are pretty level-headed and have a good sense of humor and they enjoy these things. But there’s an official attitude and then there’s what really is going on. And I guess you find those levels in any organization,” he said.

That “official attitude” takes a beating in Marketing. Although you’ll find all your favorite stereotypes parodied unmercifully—the corpulent BYU coed, the domineering husband and the docile, brainless and ever-pregnant Mormon mommy—Marketing‘s underlying theme is a protest against the power and assets of the expanding church.

From the cover of the book, which replaces the familiar LDS logo with a sign touting “The Church of Jesus Christ of Very Successful Saints,” to a sketch of a suave, fast-talking missionary who bought a limo to impress his investigators, Marketing pokes not-so-subtle fun at what Grondahl sees as the LDS preoccupation with wealth and influence.

The subject suffers some of his sharpest jabs. In a mercenary version of the LDS line of authority, the records of personal priesthood ordination take a fiscal turn: “My investment company was ordained by Beneficial Development,” one businessman tells another, “which was ordained by Zion’s Securities Corporation, which was ordained by Deseret Trust, which was ordained by the Corporation of the President, which was ordained by Joseph Smith’s General Store, which was ordained by the Peter, James and John fishing fleet of Galilee.”

The wealth-and-power cartoons are hilarious—but a little bitter, just tinged with bile. It’s when he aims his pencil toward other targets that Grondahl’s wit sparks with the keen details and skewed humor that made his three previous books so delightful. Take, for example, his account of ordering the souped-up LDS scriptures at Deseret Book: “One TRIPLE-COMBO AND BIBLE? with everything on it to go!” Or, perhaps, his satire on Mormon romance novels: “Then came the fateful day when her Bible touched his Bible.”

These drawings, the ones that concentrate on such intimate specifics as the Children’s Friend and the Hotel Utah, appeal to me more than the cartoons that try to tackle the vast power base of the LDS Church. Maybe it’s just that I’m LDS and defensive about it. Maybe it’s just that I happen to like seeing a pedestrian element of my life suddenly turn inside out. But at least to me, carpeted basketball courts are more amusing than King Benjamin’s questionable outside employment.

Still, overall Marketing is another triumph for Grondahl and his unique perspective on contemporary Mormonism. Here’s hoping for book No. 5.

Deseret News, Jerry Johnston
I get a charge out of Calvin Grondahl and his work; I have since the days he worked at the Deseret News.

When his latest collection of LDS cartoons (“Marketing Precedes the Miracle”) was kept from the shelves of Deseret Book and downplayed at BYU recently, Grondahl appeared on television and in the Standard Examiner to discuss the issue. Basically his response was “What’d I do?”

I got a charge out of that, too. It’s what sly students say after pulling the chair from under a teacher, what people say just before adding “I didn’t know the gun was loaded.”

A naif, Grondahl’s not. He’s a savvy humorist. He knows where all the bodies are buried and just where the sacred cows are kept.

Book critics get the urge to take potshots at cartoon books from time to time. As the saying has it, if cartoonists could write better they’d be writers, if they could draw better they’d be artists. Since they can’t, they’re cartoonists. Cartoons, at heart, are wise-cracks—Johnny Carson’s monologue with visual aids.

So why the hullabaloo over Grondahl’s book?

The true issue isn’t the book; it’s the communication. Grondahl apparently feels he’s a victim of the Cool Hand Luke syndrome: “failure to communicate” with authorities. Still, he’s sharp enough to style his humor for the masses. It’s the old “plead the case to the people” approach that American populists have used since Thomas Paine.

In this case, however, I’m finding even the masses aren’t sure what to make of his new book. But it’s obvious they want to get a look at it. Signature Books has gone through 10,000 already and they are cranking up the press for another run.

Grondahl’s salvos strike a chord. But after a second and third reading, other things surface here. Is that an aftertaste of bile seeping into the man’s work? Are his target’s getting too easy? This isn’t hardball, of course. Hardball’s what terrorists play. When Grondahl’s Standard Examiner cartoons lampooning Neo-Nazi’s outrage one of those boys, that will be hardball.

Still, soft as some of these one-line gags are, many are very, very funny. When it comes to pinpoint accuracy for hitting both sore spots and funny bones, Grondahl’s a marksman. Yes, we get the usual dose of Grondahl misspellings (“steriods” for “steroids,” for example) and the cartoonist seems to reinforce stereotypes rather than debunk them (the tired notion of the man-hungry, food-hungry BYU coed, for instance); but I, for one, catch myself laughing out loud.

This is Grondahl’s fourth book of LDS cartoons, and in this one—as in the others—the trick is trying to spot who’s wearing the white hat, who’s wearing the black. In one cartoon, a Mormon missionary is a clever soul who puts down an obnoxious biker with a line about leather-bound books and leather-bound people. A little later the missionary’s the dupe, trying to lure investigators out to church with a limousine.

In another, a Mormon mother gets the last laugh by wearing a T-shirt with a “working mother” slogan on it. A little later Grondahl gives Mormon mothers a slap by depicting them as know-nothing air-heads.

It’s this duality in Grondahl—the need to cut both ways—that keeps his work fresh, and keeps readers guessing and buying. I sometimes wonder if Grondahl himself knows what he thinks about Mormons.

As for the reaction of Deseret Book and BYU, I remember Pope John Paul II’s visit to Nicaragua. Ernesto Cardenal is the Minister of Culture there. He is also the best read poet in Latin America, a Catholic Priest and a Communist.

As John Paul walked along, Cardenal knelt to kiss the pontiff’s ring. The pope pulled his hand away and shook his finger at the poet. “Work out your problems with your church,” he scolded.

Without trying to put words in anyone’s mouth, that’s the song I hear BYU and Deseret Book singing.

In the end, Grondahl—who tends to hold both everything and nothing sacred—may one day turn his own ambivalence into grist for the mill. One imagines the cartoonist concocting a Cal Grondahl look-alike character at the Bar of Judgement, trying to explain his muddle-of-the-road position.

“I began as a ‘liberal’ Mormon,” the caption might say, “but that sounded too political. So I became a ‘historical’ Mormon, but that sounded dry. ‘Lapsed’ Mormon, ‘disenfranchised’ Mormon, ‘expatriated’ Mormon, which is true?”

That might not leave them rolling in the aisles and foyer, but it would show readers that this snake-quick humorist can take punches just as well as sling them.

Utah Holiday
Fundamental to the fabric of American life is our ability to laugh at our political leadership; to recognize humor in all its forms. Editorial cartoonists provide us with an avenue for this expression. They are, to some degree, guardians of the political scene and stimulate us by exposing the corrupt, monitoring scandals, and waging war on the powerful and morally righteous.

President Grant acknowledged the power of political cartoonists when he said, “Two things elected me. The sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.” Other political figures have not been so fortunate.

Over the years, a variety of actions have been brought against editorial cartoonists by offended politicians and corporations. In the late 1940s, cartoonists Dan Fitzpatrick of the St. Louis Post Dispatch was sentenced to jail by a judge who was jabbed in his cartoon series, “Rat Alley.” Although the case was thrown out by the Missouri Supreme Court, it was no consolation to Fitzpatrick who felt his incarceration was a serious threat to the exercise of free graphic expression. First Amendment rights accorded journalists often excluded cartoonists. Many states have attempted to censor cartoonists, but the bills usually die in the legislature or are overturned in court. Freedom of expression for the editorial cartoonist is an essential test of democracy.

Utah has three talented editorial cartoonists who run loose on the pages of The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News and Ogden’s Standard Examiner. In an effort to explore what goes on behind the scenes, Utah Holiday invited these cartoonists to share their thoughts about cartooning. Likewise, all three of them were invited to display cartoons which never made it to the editorial page. They appear now, for the first time, in this issue of Utah Holiday.

Cal Grondahl is bent over his desk reading an article about the 20th anniversary of Woodstock. If circumstances were different 20 years ago, he might have been at Woodstock making history. Instead, his concern was on his draft status and whether he would be able to go on a mission for the Mormon church. He is bearded and wears John Lennon glasses. His eyes twinkle and unconsciously he doodles on a cartoon during the interview.

Born 39 years ago in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Grondahl maintains he’s been “drawing all his life.” He started cartooning because it was a way for him to gain notoriety among his classmates. When the Beatles first appeared on the American rock scene, Grondahl began drawing caricatures of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. “It was the only way girls would pay attention to me,” he chuckles, “I was basically not very self confident, and drawing was the one area where I could gain recognition.”

Grondahl continued his cartooning into college and landed on the staff of the Daily Universe at Brigham Young University.

Eventually, his cartooning talents secured him a position with the Deseret News where he spent ten years as an editorial cartoonist. Currently, he is on the staff of the Standard Examiner where he is allowed a greater sense of cartooning freedom.

Though he is syndicated nationally, Grondahl sees himself more as a regional cartoonist. With four cartoon books published on Mormon humor, Freeway to Perfection, Faith Promoting Rumors, Sunday’s Foyer (Sunstone Foundation), Marketing Precedes the Miracle and Utah and All That Jazz (Signature Press), Grondahl is one of the most prolific cartoonists in the area. He finds his most satisfying work had to do with issues concerned with the environment and local issues.

When quoted about the role of the editorial cartoonist, Grondahl said, “I don’t know? Maybe it’s to go through the battlefield and shoot all the wounded. A cartoon is not an answer, it is a question. I’m not really sure that I have enough confidence in my own opinion to be able to provide answers. I spend my time living amongst the questions. Cartoonists need some negative reaction to keep the interest level up. It’s like a sporting event. There needs to be the element of risk and danger, but at the same time, you need to keep the fans coming out and fill the stadium. I hope I get enough positive response from my cartoons to have the editors keep me on.

“There is no reality in cartooning. Reality, if there is any, can best be defined as a simplistic analogy of a complex issue. People like cartoons not because they express a reality, but because the cartoon elicits or captures an emotion. Cartooning is a snapshot impression of a scene. You have to be an emotional person to be a cartoonist, and, if you’re really good, you can tap into those emotions.”

In a hi-tech society, with corporate “buy outs and take overs,” Grondahl sees the role of newspapers changing dramatically. With rapidly changing lifestyles and the advance of sophisticated electronics, he views newspapers as an endangered species. “I feel like the last end of the Crustaceous Period?the last dinosaur,” but adds optimistically, “those that communicate visually still have a great future. The news media is like air travel. The airlines can’t handle all the material. You still see those Union Pacific trains hauling the bulk stuff. There was a time when newspapers not only carried the bulk of information but all the pizazz with it. Those days are gone because the electronic media has taken over the flash. Still, people are very visual and they always turn open the page of a newspaper to the editorial section and the first thing they see is the cartoon.”

With his move to the Standard Examiner, Grondahl has a broader range of graphic freedom. He is philosophical about his past experience with the Deseret News. “It was a good experience for me. I respect what they were trying to do. There are a lot of good people on the staff, and they produce a good paper with some terrific news coverage.” At the same time, one senses Grondahl’s move was necessary to expand his cartooning horizons. Freed from the managerial and editorial constraints, his eye succinctly captures the comedy of Utah life.

Like both of his contemporaries, Grondahl acknowledges a great deal of his success comes from being an “insider.” “If you are going to do cartoons about the Mormon way of life, it helps to be a Mormon. If you’re not a Mormon, it looks more like an attack. I’ve found that Mormons have a pretty good sense of humor, and the people that enjoy my brand of cartooning know what’s going on.”

Not everybody agrees with Grondahl’s philosophy, especially among the Mormon faithful. The Deseret Bookstore no longer carries Grondahl’s cartoon books. Gary Bergera of Signature Books explained some of the pitfalls of Grondahl’s revealing humor: “The Deseret Bookstore has a reading committee that goes over all Mormon related titles. They approve or disapprove these titles to be carried through their retail stores. All three of Calvin Grondahl’s titles were disapproved by the reading committee. Officially they gave no reason. My guess is that there are a handful of cartoons that might be offensive to their readership. Cal has a keen eye for Mormon humor. One of the things Grondahl can do, since he is a convert to the Mormon church, is bring a perspective of one who is ‘in’ but ‘out.’ His cartoons threaten people because they are daring and he is willing to take a chance with his humor.”

None of this seems to bother Grondahl. He continues to explore the contradictory values of Utah life with his brand of satirical cartooning. There appears to be no lack of material for Grondahl’s vibrant cartoons. His targets include local public figures as well as sensitive national issues. To this degree, Grondahl is largely successful in breaking down the “us against them” mentality with his wit and humor. His staying power as a cartoonist comes from the fact that he sees things so differently.

“Oh yeah,” Grondahl says at the culmination of our interview, “tell them I’ve never been arrested or thrown into jail for one of my cartoons.” Granted he speaks the truth, but rest assured there are several people, those finding themselves at the end of Grondahl’s felt pens and ink cartoons, wishing this were not true.

The late I.F. Stone, editor, researcher, and reporter once said, “Every government is run by liars. That’s the prima facie assumption unless proven to the contrary. [But] a government [also] reveals a good deal, if you take the trouble to really study what it says.” Bagley, Holyoak, and Grondahl serve to remind us that the graphic representation of cartooning is paramount in the evaluation of our own history. In times of crisis, they help us keep our wits, and, at all times, they force us to analyze our own foibles. If they are, as they themselves admit, purveyors of half-truths, then they have a remarkable batting average.

Legendary baseball great Yogi Berra is reported to have said, “Baseball is a mental game. Ninety percent of the time your team can win, and the other half of the time they’re gonna lose.” No truer words were ever spoken for editorial cartoonists. And no matter how one looks at it, fifty percent isn’t bad in any book.