30 January 2007

Art Out of Its Mind

Without doubt the weirdest things I’ve read for months (and bear in mind I’m reading fantasies for the Cybils and mystical visions ascribed to George Washington) are some of the comics collected by Dan Nadel in Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969.

Some of these comics bear out the rule that when there is seemingly unquenchable demand (“too many customers”), publishers expand their offerings. This can produce great innovation as well as mediocre and even horrendous work. Thus, in the early 1940s, when publishers couldn’t print comics fast enough, there was a market even for Fletcher Hanks’s Stardust the Super Wizard. It’s crappy on so many levels--storytelling, dialogue, draftsmanship--yet impossible to get out of your mind.

Similarly, the late 1960s underground comics seem to have printed anything, even Rory Hayes's nightmarish visions, which I can best summarize as “Snuggle the softener bear goes to Hell.” If only these hadn’t actually been published, connoisseurs might look at Hayes’s addictions and oddities and decide these pages qualify as “outsider art,” and are worth much, much more.

Most of the work collected in this volume comes from sane, talented artists who simply pushed the boundaries of the medium, either as those boundaries were becoming established and after they had become cliché. For example, in 1903-04 Gustave Verbeek drew a series of Sunday comics which started a simple story in panels left to right, top row to bottom—and then the reader turned the page upside-down and read the same panels from the new left to the new right, the new top to the new bottom. Nadel does a nice job of sorting out the comics by their area of greatest innovation: surreal storytelling, unique draftsmanship, humor, etc.

But even as the book analyzes those hard-working professional artists, there are touches of deep strangeness. Garrett Price’s Western newspaper comic sported not only a distinctively spare graphic style but also the title of (wait for it) White Boy. Norman E. Jennett got his start in North Carolina at a local newspaper called The Caucasian.

My favorite items in this collection reflect my fondness for Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland strips. Since many other people loved that comic page at the time, rival newspapers commissioned imitations from talented artists, and three appear in this book.

  • Naughty Pete, by Charles Forbell (1913); only eleven episodes survive, all of them reprinted here
  • Monkey Shines of Marcellus, by Norman E. Jennett (1905-1910), if only for its draftsmanship
  • Harry Grant Dart's The Explorigator(s) (1908)—the most obvious Nemo imitation, and yet the one I want to see more of
The Explorigator lasted only fourteen episodes, so the book reprints 29% of its entire run. (Here, in fact, is 7%.) Unlike Nemo, who’s a bit colorless, each of Dart’s boy heroes has an outsized ambition to match his hat: Admiral Fudge, the Grenadier, Teddy Typewriter the journalist, Rubbersole the detective, et al. True to his name, Dart absolutely soared as an illustrator of the new age of airships.

Check out the Comics Reporter for some Art Out of Time preview pages and comments from Nadel. Reviews from Paul Gravett and the LA Weekly and an interview at The Comics Journal offer more sneak peeks.

Beyond the scope of Art Out of Time is another McCay imitation, Frank King’s Bobby Make-Believe, which I think suffers from condescension toward its young hero. Steve Moore and Eric Shanower created a latter-day homage to McCay and Dart with “Little Margie in Misty Magic Land” in 2003.

1 comment:

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Thanks for posting about this! I didn't know it was out.