In U and I, a madcap memoir of a freshman writer’s Updike obsession, Nicholson Baker compares a drawing he saw in a philosophy book with some cartoons: “I thought of those several contemporary illustrators whose style was based on the same trembly, Dow-Jonesy contour line: William Steig, for instance, and Seymour Chwast, and whoever did that Alka-Seltzer cartoon commercial in the sixties in which (as I remembered it) a yiddishly unhappy human stomach, gesticulating from an analyst’s couch or chair, it esophagus waggling like an unruly forelock, told its troubles to a nodding murmuring doctor.”
I might be gravely mistaken on this point, but I think the animated ad that Baker remembered was done by R.O. Blechman. Certainly Blechman did other ads for Alka-Seltzer, including one which can be seen here.
Blechman is like that: he’s everywhere and nowhere at once. Even more than Bazooka Joe strips or Jack Chick handouts, Blechman lives at the peripheral edge of perception. He’s been in every magazine on the newsstand (either through his own art or in the ersatz form of his many imitators) yet only the design elite know his name. The very pervasiveness and influence of his art works against name recognition. Even someone as erudite as Baker, who can readily summon up Steig and Chwast, knows Blechman only as “whoever.”
There are two big Blechman books this season. The Drawn and Quarterly career overview of his cartooning work is rightfully getting attention, including some choice praise from Dan, but that might have overshadowed his other fine book, Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator. Earlier on this blog, Tim tried to get people to pay attention to this book and it got a nice, observant review from Sarah Boxer in the New York Times. Still, my sense is that many comics people are still only dimly aware of the book’s existence and haven’t really recognized why it deserves their time. I’d be surprised if very many comic book stores are stocking it, despite the fact that it is a perfect gift for prospective cartoonists.
Dear James is several books in one: it’s an informal autobiography, a guide for becoming an illustrator, as well as a commonplace book. But really it is a nifty volume that should be read by anyone who is engaged in a freelance career in the arts, because it is really about how to survive in a commercial environment while holding on to your artistic integrity. Blechman has a well-stocked mind, rich in both personal anecdotes and also choice quotations taken from his wide reading. His prose, like his drawing, is deceptively simple. Glancing at his drawings or skimming his essays, you might fall into the fallacy of thinking that the man is minimalist to a fault. Yet after you’ve spent some time with Blechman’s work and then set it aside, you’ll be surprise by how much of it has stuck with you. He’s a master of giving his audience the core that they need, leaving everything superfluous aside.