Posts Tagged ‘r.o. blechman’

Wilson’s Comedy of Horror


Monday, January 25, 2010

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Review of Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons (Fantagraphics Books)

Gahan Wilson was born dead but he quickly got better. That sounds like the morbid joke, exactly the sort of queasy punchline that graces many a Wilson cartoon, but it happens to be completely factual: when Wilson entered our world in 1930 the doctor pronounced the baby a still birth, but after being soaked in ice-water the infant proved to be loudly and healthily alive. What better beginning could there be for a cartoonist who would do hundreds of comics about vampires, zombies, flesh-eating plants and many other monsters who carry death within themselves?

Both his parents had artistic aspirations but settled for a more conventional existence: Miriam Wilson as a housewife, her husband Allen as a steel-industry executive. Perhaps due to their thwarted artistic career, augmented by the stress of being a young couple during the Great Depression, both parents were also alcoholics. As Gary Groth notes in a shrewd essay near the end of this exemplary republishing of Wilson’s Playboy cartoons, the lumpy people that populate Gahan’s cartoons, with their ghastly half-melting faces, could easily be a child’s view of sodden, Depression-haunted adults.

As a cartoonist, Gahan Wilson had two fathers: Charles Addams and James Thurber. Wilson’s use of gothic motifs as comedy obviously owes much to Addams (Hugh Hefner admits that he hired Wilson to be Playboy’s Addams). But the lumpiness of Wilson’s characters, the heavy gravitational pull that seems to drag their bodies and faces earthward, is the patrimony of Thurber.

Someday somebody will have to write a history of gothic humour, the re-purposing of ghouls and monsters for laughs. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is clearly an ancestor but the genre seems to have taken off in the early 20th century, with Addams as the premier example but with many other examples ranging from Abbott and Costello to John Stanley.

Generationally, Wilson belong to a small cohort of cartoonists that includes Jules Feiffer (born 1929), Edward Sorel (1929), and R.O. Blechman (1930). All these men were metropolitan cartoonists, at home in the cosmopolitan and worldly pages of the Shawn’s New Yorker and Hefner’s Playboy. As such they were the heirs to the first generation of New Yorker cartoonists, but their work had a critical edge that the more mainstream New Yorker crowd lacked. Politically, these four cartoonists managed the difficult task of remaining radicals in the most conservative era in modern American history, the 1950s. While they lacked the iconoclastic urge and plebeian griminess of the subsequent underground generation, their work reflected the “Silent Generations” disgruntlement at existing norms.

There has been a renewed interest in “black humour” in comics (thanks I would guess to Ivan Brunetti’s superb work in the genre), as witness the current show in Detroit. Feiffer and Wilson didn’t practise “black humor” but rather its immediate ancestor, “sick humor.” To put it another way, sick humor is the middle generation in the family tree that runs from Addams to Wilson to Brunetti.

One of the many nice features of the new Fantagraphics book is that it is chronological and dated, so we can see Wilson responding to the changing social and political landscapes. It’s very evident in this book that the year 1968, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed and Nixon took the White House, hit Wilson very hard. The cartoons for the next few years are much grimmer than before, with the formerly gleeful ghastliness now transformed into genuine dread. One 1969 cartoon shows a gun-and-knife totting madman, his eyes bugged-out with joy as he surveys a post-apocalyptic landscape where everyone else has been killed, issuing a victory cry: “I think I won!”

As a physical object Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons cannot be praised highly enough. Designer Jacob Covey pulled out all stops: three handsome hard-cover volumes, complete with a die cut cover in the form of a bottle of poison, printed on plush Playboy paper, all encased in a slipcase embossed on one side with a plexiglass window on the other side that allows you peek into the front cover (an appropriately macabre photo of the cartoonist pressing his fact against a glass). All of this supplemented by smart introductory material by Hefner and Neil Gaiman, a substantial essay by Gary Groth, who also conducts a long interview with Wilson, topped off by a topical index.

At this point, some readers might ask whether Wilson deserves this royal treatment. Normally this sort of over-the-top lavishness is reserved only for an Everest-level master. I myself initially had doubts, since I wasn’t too familiar with Wilson’s work and gag cartooning in not a genre I’m naturally inclined to love. Yet looking at Wilson’s work at length, eating it up with my eyes, I came to love his work. He is, in fact, a master. He clearly belongs to the rank of Feiffer, Blechman and Sorel, not only in terms of chronology but also in his stature as an artist.

The new books also made me reconsider Hugh Hefner, a figure that I have mixed feelings about. Perhaps ungenerously, I’ve been inclined to think of Heffner as the man who ruined Harvey Kurtzman’s life and career. It’s hard to forgive the middlebrow doltishness of the decision to make our greatest cartoonist spend decades working on Little Annie Fanny. But there was another side to Hefner. Free of snobbery, he knew that there were many great artists working for publications that were widely considered to be trashy, whether it was comic books (Jack Cole and Harvey Kurtzman), or pulp magazines (Theodore Sturgeon and Gahan Wilson) or third rung gag magazines (many of the cartoonists who were recruited for Playboy). These were artists and writers of real talent who were despised by the official culture of the 1950s. Hefner gave them a handsome venue for their work and paid them well. As in the realm of sex, he wanted to show that pleasures that were considered dirty and bad were actually good clean fun, and should be enjoyed as such. Hefner was as much revolutionary in the field of popular culture as he was in his more famous sex advocacy. Whatever one might want to say about the Kurtzman-Hefner relationship, the Playboy publisher deserves our eternal thanks for nurturing Wilson’s poisoned plants, giving them a hothouse where they could flourish for five decades.

Wilson’s long term marriage to Playboy might seem odd (Gary Groth for one has questions about it). After all, isn’t Playboy all about sex while Wilson’s work is all about death? A more synoptic view would be that sex and death are two sides of the same coin: that the reality of death makes life’s pleasures, chief among them sex, all the more important. Or to put it another way, for all their morbidity and ghoulishness, Wilson’s cartoons affirm the value of cherishing life. As inhuman as his characters often are, Wilson is a deeply humane cartoonist.

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The Barely Visible Blechman


Thursday, December 10, 2009

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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.

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Paid Advertisement #2


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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Well, here we go. Mark your calendars to come to Brooklyn and meet tons of artists, including much of the Comics Comics crew (me, Frank, probably Tim, Dash). Now you can tell us that we’re snobs/hipsters/idiots/intellectuals/low-brows in person! Official text below. Watch the web site for panel schedules, updates, and other goodies.

Desert Island and PictureBox present:
The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival
A gathering of the best of contemporary graphic art

Saturday December 5th 2009: 11 AM – 7 PM
Our Lady of Consolation Church
184 Metropolitan Ave.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Free admission

New York has long been the hub of contemporary graphics and comics publishing, and Brooklyn the borough of choice for many of the city’s best cartoonists and graphic artists. Bringing together an international cast of cartoonists, illustrators, designers, and printmakers, The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival , founded by local bookstore Desert Island and local publisher PictureBox, is the first festival to serve this vibrant community.

The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival will consist of 4 components:

– Over 50 exhibitors selling their zines, comics, books, prints and posters in a bustling market-style environment
– Signings, panel discussions and lectures by prominent artists
– Exhibition of vintage comic book artwork
– An evening of musical performances

In the cozy basement of Our Lady of Consolation Church, exhibitors will display and sell their unique wares. Exhibitors include leading graphic book publisher Drawn & Quarterly of Montreal; famed French screenprint publisher Le Dernier Cri; artist’s book publisher Nieves of Zurich, Switzerland; Italian art book publisher Corraini; master printer David Sandlin; and tons of individual artists and publishers from Brooklyn.

Featured guests include the renowned artists Gabrielle Bell, R. O. Blechman, Charles Burns, C.F., Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor, Michael Kupperman, Mark Newgarden, Gary Panter, Ron Rege Jr., Peter Saul, Dash Shaw, R. Sikoryak, Jillian Tamaki, and Lauren Weinstein, among others.

The commerce portion of the Festival is partnered with an active panel and lecture program nearby at Secret Project Robot gallery, down the street at 210 Kent Ave. This mini-symposium will run from 1 to 6 pm and is being overseen by noted comics critic Bill Kartalopolous. Also at Secret Project Robot will be an intimate exhibition of original comic book pages from 1950s romance, western and science fiction comic books, curated by PictureBox’s Dan Nadel.

Finally, at the end of the day visitors can troop over to Death by Audio at 49 S. 2nd Street, for an evening of musical performances by cartoonists, organized by Paper Route, and including performances by Boogie Boarder, Ambergris, Scary Mansion, Nick Gazin, and many others.

The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

Exhibitors and Artists:

Our Lady of Consolation Church
184 Metropolitan Ave?.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
11 AM – 7 PM

Panel Discussions, Lectures & Art Exhibition:

Secret Project Robot
128 River @ corner of Metropolitan Ave.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
1 PM – 6 PM

Musical Performances:

Death by Audio
49 S. 2nd St Between Kent & Wythe
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
9 PM onward

Poster image by Charles Burns
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Live Free or Blog La-Z


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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I had planned a better post, but scanning problems are delaying things a bit, so here’s a few links to tide things over.

You know, there’s a prominent comics link-blogger who likes to go on and on about how hard it is to put these things together, but based on my limited experience, it actually seems like a great and incredibly easy way to post stuff online, even when you’re busy with a day job, a baby, election day, scanner foul-ups, early morning meetings, etc. If I was actually paid to do this every day, I bet I could get a routine going with my RSS feeds where it took me less than an hour to round up links to all of the “important” comics blogosphere blogonet sites every morning. Kind of fun!

1. Austin English is a great guy and all, but he has weird ideas about what’s ugly and what isn’t. (And seems to compare Denny O’Neil favorably to R. Crumb, an aesthetic crime that should not go unpunished. (Jk Austin! Sorta.))

2. I knew about Talking Lines, but didn’t realize there was another interesting looking new R.O. Blechman book out.

3. Birthday tributes to Steve Ditko weren’t even a dime a dozen yesterday, unless you pay way too much for your internet service, but this one, despite its brief length, was particularly provocative and original.

4. Naoki Urasawa talks process. [via]

5. A too-rare interview with Peter Blegvad appears in the new Believer. [via]

[UPDATE: And I didn’t realize it when I originally posted, but the issue includes a TON of good comics material that I should have mentioned.]

6. Almost every post Jog writes these days is worth linking to, but since everyone already reads him anyway, what’s the point? That said, this review of J.H. Williams III and Detective Comics is unusually thorough and well-wrought, even for him.

7. And here is an insightful appreciation of last week’s Chris Ware New Yorker work. Click on it; it’s not boring.

8. Finally (but not leastily), for those of you who didn’t notice, this weekend brought the grand debut of our newest online team member, the great Jason T. Miles. Please make him welcome and stay tuned for more. I don’t want to ruin his next post by giving anything away, but it sounds pretty awesome.

That’s it. I hope you found at least most of those worth reading. Nothing is more annoying than linkblogs full of garbage. On second thought, I have to admit that maybe this isn’t that easy to do exhaustively if you hope to maintain any kind of quality control. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m finding less and less of interest in the actual comics blogosphere blogonet these days. Writers outside it seem more thoughtful lately. Still, ninety minutes tops.

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The Proto-Graphic Novel: Notes on a Form


Monday, October 19, 2009

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Artistic innovation always outruns the vocabulary of critics. Artistic forms and genres are created long before there are words to describe them. Cervantes didn’t know he was working on a great novel when he wrote Don Quixote; he couldn’t have: the novel as a distinct form didn’t exist then, nor would it exist for centuries. If you had asked Cervantes what he was up to, he might have said he was writing a burlesque of courtly romances.

On the same principle, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells didn’t know they were writing science fiction novels. Wells might have had some idea late in life when science fiction as a genre emerged and his earlier work, which he might have thought of as scientific romances, were co-opted as pioneering examples of the genre.

The same principal is true of the graphic novel: now that the form exist, we can see all sorts of ancestors of the form. Books that previously existed as isolated oddities can now be seen as precursors of a form.

In the previous post, Dan mentioned that R.O. Blechman’s The Juggler of Our Lady (1953) can be considered as a proto-graphic novel. True. The same can be said of the many woodcut novels of the early 20th century, as well as the much earlier work of Rodolphe Töpffer. Other candidates for the form include Myron Waldman’s Eve (1943), the 1950 thriller It Rhymes with Lust (done by the team of Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, Matt Baker, and Ray Osrin), Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong (1930), Don Freeman’s Skitzy (1955), as well as a number of works from the early 1970s by Martin Vaughn-James. Raymond Briggs probably belongs on this list.

Just today a publisher sent me Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip, a proto-graphic novel originally published in Italy in 1969, and now available in English thanks to the good offices of the New York Review of Books. I’ll have more to say about the book in another post, but it is an interesting example of Magritte-inflicted surrealism not dissimilar to the contemporaneous work of Vaughn-James.

As more and more proto-graphic novels come to light, we can start seeing some commonalities in the form.

Here are a few things these books tend to have in common (although there are exceptions to every rule):

1. The cartoonists who work on them tend to come from a background outside of commercial comic strips or comic books, either from the fine arts, from children’s literature, or from avant-garde literature. The exceptions here are He Done Her Wrong and It Rhymes with Lust.

2. The works tend to be allegorical or dream-like rather than realistic; that is to say the characters and stories tend to be emblematic rather than follow any of the rules of verisimilitude or psychological realism.

3. In their time, some of these works were very popular and successful. That’s certainly true of Töpffer, some of the woodcut novels, and The Juggler of Our Lady. But there is little sense that they belong to a tradition or are created by a communal context (the woodcut novels might be the exception). Often the cartoonist involved only did one or two such books (Vaughn-James seems to have been more persistent than most).

Most of these books in there time were sports, isolated mutations, freaks of nature. But when we bring all these books together, they do seem to form a sort of tradition: not perhaps a strong tradition like the novel but a quirky, wayward and at times prophetic tradition, like 19th century science fiction.

PS: Someone should make a list of all the proto-graphic novels. That would be a worthwhile resource.

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Quick One #1


Sunday, October 18, 2009

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I’m going to try to sneak out some quick little thoughts on some recent books and ideas knocking around my brain.

I want to begin with Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman. A longtime favorite of mine, Blechman is a master of the shaky line school of cartooning, his mark as unmistakable as, say, Herriman’s. Coming into his own in the 1950s, Blechman absorbed the lessons of linear cartoonists like Steinberg and just kept refining and refining so that each mark actually means something. You won’t find anything extraneous in a Blechman drawing. When combined with a judicious use of spot colors, his delicate images pop to life, becoming communicative graphics on a page. As a cartoonist, he’s unusual these days: he’s a yarn-spinner and a moralist. These tales are subtle examinations of a theme or subject. This, as well as use of the page, rather than the panel, as a storytelling device, seem to bring him in line with 19th century cartoonists like Caran d’Ache. But his urbane concern with current events, social mores, and city life make him resolutely modern. Blechman resolutely looks outward and at the world around him: No moody ruminating or action adventure here. More clear eyed commentary on life. I think of him like I might think of the writer Joseph Epstein: a bemused observer whose wit always surprises.

And Blechman, of course, has had one of the great modern careers (the kind it’s sorta impossible to have anymore) in graphic communication, covering animation, illustration, design, and comics. His other essential book, The Juggler of Our Lady is, as Seth notes in his introduction, one of those inbetween tomes that seems to be a proto-graphic novel.

So, go out and get this fine book. It, like D&Q’s other recent essential archive project, Melvin Monster, is one of those volumes that knocks my vision of the medium slightly askew and reminds why I’m bothering in the first place.

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