Monday, April 02, 2007

Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visonaries, 1900-1968

I've been absolutely absorbed in this recent anthology of relatively unknown, underappreciated comics geniuses from the golden era of comics. (I guess "golden era" depends on your definition. A lot of this is from the first four decades of the 20C.) I got this from a library, but I'm going to have to buy my own copy tonight. As I told a friend the other day, I'm renting a time machine and going back to the twenties to open up a shop selling magazines and newspapers where I can read all the great comics I want to.

Editor Dan Nadel has done an amazing job selecting these works, and the short biographies he provides at the back are fascinating, with critical descriptions of each artist's work. He has an impressive knack for capturing visual art in words, and considering what a hodepodge of styles this collection represents, his summaries were especially helpful. Every artist here is worth reading, but of course we all have our own tastes, and I naturally preferred some to others. I really enjoyed Dick Briefer's funny Frankenstein, the full-page design of Harry J. Tuthill's work, Gustave Verbeek's "The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo" (a strip you read first, normally, then turn upside down to continue, a wonderfully vertiginous experience that almost had me clutching the table), and the cool, strange surrealism and wordplay of George Carlson's "Jingle Jangle Tales." My absolute favorites were Garrett Price's "White Boy" adventure comics about the titles character's travels among native American lands (Price was also a New Yorker cartoonist), A.E. Hayward's sassy, jazzy "Somebody's Stenog," Jefferson Machamer's inventive thirties riot "Gags and Gals" (which apparently became a series of films), and Charles Forbell's "Naughty Pete," gorgeous full-page works with organically creative full-page designs.

And there's loads more: Raymond Crawford Ewer's Slim Jim, which seems to have influenced the look of Payne's "S'Matter Pop?" also included here; Quermann's "Hickory Hollow Folks" (the colors are gorgeous!), Milt Gross' "Nize Baby" and his jazzy, slapsticky "Pete the Pooch"; Cecil Johnson's "Elmo," Boody Rogers' "Sparky Watts," T.E. Powers (whose use of little personified "joys" and "glooms" fascinated me), and the excellent Terr'ble Thompson by the rather more famous Gene Deitch, who also did Captain Kangaroo's "Tom Terrific" (and whose son Kim wrote a graphic novel about comics called Boulevard of Broken Dreams which is going high onto my tbr list). Honestly, every one of these works is a gem. Which ones will stand out for you is a matter of taste, but I think it's safe to say there's something here for everyone, especially alternative and classic comics fans. Reading it has been one of the real highlights of the season for me. I'm going to buy my own copy immediately.

Also, I can't resist noting that many of the artists anthologized here have Chicago connections. Raymond Crawford Ewer worked for the Chicago Daily News. Garrett Price studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked at the Chicago Tribune. (Why don't they ever run golden era comics from their archives for fun?) Henry Hershfield studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked at the Chicago Daily News. Cecil Jensen studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (as did Boody Rogers) and also worked for the Chicago Daily News (as did T.E. Powers). Harry J. Tuthill was born here. Clearly, the city has a rich history of comics innovation it can be proud of.

In a Comics Reporter interview he recommends a Gerard Jones book, Men of Tomorrow, among other works and artists. Elsewhere, the Reporter profiles Art Out of Time, with some excellent examples from the book, but it's only a tiny sample.

Paul Gravett does a good job discussing the contents of the book and on his site you can see a few more tantalizing examples of comics from the collection, including one of my favorites, this episode of Naughty Pete.

Dan Nadel's blog.

A Comics Journal interview in which Nadel talks about where he found some of these comics and touches on complaints about the size of reproduction of some of the included work.

Nadel provides the introduction for a new collection of Deitch's Terr'ble Thompson, a strip that reminds me a bit of Rocky and Bullwinkle's wacky adventure sensibility. I hope Nadel continues to be involved in promoting these artists, because he has a great eye, sharp intellect, and great taste.



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