Cheesed Off

Local underground cartoonist Stuart Helm picked up the phone one day last winter and found a Kraft Foods attorney on the line. “I’m an admirer of your work,” the lawyer said, “but we think you should change your professional name.” It wasn’t “Helm” that had Kraft curdling; it was the cartoonist’s alias, King VelVeeda, a nickname he’s used as his signature on artwork for 13 years and on his Web sites, and, for about 3. The lawyer said consumers looking for Kraft on the Web were confusing VelVeeda with their 80-year-old trademark processed cheese loaf, Velveeta, and zooming to a site way more cheesy than they had in mind–a place of “pornography, bestiality, and negative attitudes toward women.” Helm admits his skull-head king offers “lowbrow entertainment” but maintains he’s harmless. Besides, he says, the claim that people are stumbling onto VelVeeda while hunting for Kraft is bogus. He respectfully declined Kraft’s request, and in March the company filed suit against him in federal court for trademark dilution. Kraft, which is part of the Philip Morris “family” and last year had revenues of $34 billion, charges that Helm’s “frequent use of words evocative of cheese products” in conjunction with his “unsavory” content tarnishes its trademarks and does it “irreparable harm.”

“I’m just a guy that draws pictures and sells ’em to people,” says Helm, who grew up in Boston and got a BFA in illustration from the Art Institute there. A founder of the zine Quimby and the newspaper Chicago at Night (both now defunct), he has published in the comics Horny Biker Slut and She-Male Trouble and New York’s Screw magazine. He sells King VelVeeda art and merchandise on his Web sites and says he gets about 300 hits a day. Too strapped to pay for a lawyer and initially unable to find pro bono help, he drew up his own responses to Kraft, pointing out that other businesses–an 80s cover band in Pennsylvania, an Austin nightclub–are using the name without changing the spelling; the band, at least, told Helm they’d never been hassled by Kraft. He’s faced the giant in a deposition and two court appearances in the last couple of weeks. “That was daunting,” he says. “It sucks having to represent yourself.” But Helm argues that the case hinges on First Amendment issues and says the magistrate at a preliminary hearing seemed to agree. Last week he learned he’ll get help from attorney Burton Joseph (who represents Playboy) through the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. His story sounds like grist for a King VelVeeda strip: monster corporation, part of a tobacco-mongering conglomerate, goes after cartoon character for damage to a product synonymous with anything too smooth and cheap to be real. Now that’s cheesy. They’ll be back in court May 17.

Flying High

Spirits were high at an open house last weekend at Bucktown Pictures. Word had come two weeks earlier that local director Bruce Terris’s Flying, produced at Bucktown, would be shown next week as part of the short-film competition at Cannes. Flying is one of only two American shorts that made it into the finals and one of 11 chosen from about 1,300 submissions. Terris, who was assistant director on Project Greenlight’s Stolen Summer, says the idea for the film came to him while he was shooting a scene for another film in a nearly empty terminal at O’Hare. He wrote the 12-minute script on deadline for an Independent Feature Project grant and won it, which gave him access to $40,000 worth of equipment and services. It was shot in four and a half days last July, with Marc Vann as a businessman making a trip of no return and Mike Nussbaum as the only other passenger. Much of the film’s impact comes from extraordinary sound (by Maestro-Matic, a sister business to Bucktown Pictures) that does not include any music. “It would be so tempting to heighten or lessen the moments with music; I wanted to see if it played completely on its own,” Terris says. “This is not the most original piece in the world. So many people making shorts are doing something incredibly experimental. I just wanted to tell a story and see if I could accomplish within ten minutes a beginning, a middle, an end, and character development. What we wound up with, I hope, is something that is sort of, in a way, true.”

Supertitles Are for Sissies

Like rock fans, opera fans never had a clue about the words. Then came supertitles, demystifying every libretto (even those in English) and turning a once blank space above the stage into an eye magnet. But not at Chicago Opera Theater, where a knockout production of Handel’s Semele leaves the audience to catch the libretto as catch can. In a letter to patrons, COT’s general director Brian Dickie says he doesn’t favor titles for most operas written in English. Instead, “we would encourage you to attain an even deeper comprehension of the opera before you come.” Or, as the title would have it: do your homework. Starting next season, COT will suggest reading, listening, and viewing materials for ticket holders.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.