by Dan Nadel
Thursday, December 17, 2009
A couple recent items have sparked my comics fancy. First, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. This 350-page, full color book is a brilliant anthology by two masters of the form. I haven’t seen much about it in the comics press, so I thought it would be worth mentioning here. The book collects a few dozen stores from the 40s and 50s by well known cartoonists like Barks and Stanley as well as lesser known figures like Milt Stein and Jim Davis, not to mention complete unknowns like Frank Thomas and Andre LeBlanc. The promotional aspects of the book are pitched at children, as it should be (after all, the work is exactly what I wish I had as a kid), but the beauty of the organizing conceit is that many of the best cartoonists in the world were making “children’s” comics, so what the book really is is an anthology of masteful drawing and storytelling — the kind that informed cartoonists as diverse as the Hernandez Bros (Bob Bolling, Al Wiseman), R. Crumb (Barks and Kelly) and Seth (Stanley). And Spiegelman and Mouly don’t stint on the background material — the biographies of the artists are snappy and well-researched and the historical introduction nicely contextualizes the stories that follow.
Even for an obsessive (and fellow anthologist) like me there were stories that were near revelatory, like Walt Kelly’s “Never Give a Diving Board an Even Break” (composed entirely around a see-saw) and the aforementioned Frank Thomas’s “Billy and Bonny Bee”. Part of it is getting to read a single story at a time by someone like Barks, Stanley or Bolling. Making it bite-sized, without the weight of 10 other stories in an anthology or 3 others in a comic book, allowed me to just focus intently on what Barks was doing, as opposed to what, say, Milt Stein was doing. It’s good to see the “giants” amongst the unknowns — it feels like an accurate context.
All the different sensibilities here, most fully developed and deployed, are staggering in their diversity. And the other part of this book is simply the pleasure of looking: The production quality is ideal: the original comic book colors are intact and printed on uncoated stock against an off-white tone. Ahhh, perfection.
Anyhow, as a collection of near-flawless cartooning, this book can’t be beat. Go get it and learn from it.
The other item is less an item and more a stray idea: No one has really mentioned that Robert Williams has been chosen to participate in the 2010 Whitney Biennial (warning: obnoxious web site) It’s not the first time someone “outside” the mainstream art world has been exhibited — Chris Ware and Forcefield both exhibited in 2002 — but it nonetheless marks an important moment: Williams’ penetration into the curatorial world that Juxtapoz so despises. It may or may not have any real ramifications, but it would be nice if it meant there was some real curatorial interest in someone like Williams (and extending beyond him, in collecting and preserving other non-mainstream artists). I loved walking between his show and Mike Kelley’s a month or so ago and I think the work will kinda throw everything else into stark relief. In a good way. Context, baby. It’s all about context.