Art Out Of Time:
Unknown Comics Visionaries
Let me kick off again by mentioning the unmissable exhibition of comic art currently touring the States. The curators of Masters Of American Comics and the authors of its lavish accompanying catalogue have chosen to whittle down the sprawling history of 20th century American newspaper strips, comicbooks, underground comix and graphic novels to only 15 of the all-time greatest innovators.
Each of them is represented in the show not by just a handful of examples on a wall buy by an entire gallery for every artist, devoted to showing dozens of their pages and often complete stories. Few would argue that most if not all of those selected (McCay, Herriman, Feininger, Segar, King, Gould, Caniff, Schulz, Eisner, Kirby, Kurtzman, Crumb, Spiegelman, Ware and Panter) belong on such a shortlist.
Everyone who wants to appreciate comics ought at least to check them out sometime. They are largely why American comics are here at all. Fortunately, for anyone familiar with them or curious about them, all of these maestros have works in print or coming up. For instance, Fantagraphics is bringing out Feininger’s complete Sunday-page classics again, as well as Segar’s Popeye, a Kurtzman interview compilation and a massive Caniff biography in the coming months, while Crumb is hard at work on his uncensored interpretation of The Book Of Genesis for W.W. Norton and Spiegelman is creating a 50-page introduction, in strip form, for his 40-page book from Pantheon, Breakdowns, the long awaited reissue of his 1970s pre-Maus experiments in Arcade and elsewhere.
From my experience as a curator and an author, however, one problem with most exhibitions and books like Masters that attempt to cover a representative sweep of comics history is that inevitably more or less the same key players hog most of the exposure.
As a result, plenty of less celebrated but often fascinating and significant individuals get sidelined or footnoted, if they’re lucky, or often completely overlooked. Because they are literally written out of the history books, we lose a richer, deeper appreciation of this multi-faceted medium’s past. How can comics advance if we don’t know as much as possible about what has already been achieved in order that we can then build on it?
Don’t try looking for their output in America’s main libraries or national archives, though. Historically, many libraries disposed of their old newspapers, perhaps keeping only some in microfilm format, though it was common for them not to bother filming the trivial comic strip supplements. As for comicbooks, its indicative that, while the Library Of Congress has the policy of conserving every book and periodical published in America, until the 1970s that policy apparently excluded comicbooks - and telephone directories!
This is where the all-important collectors come in, pop culture vultures and determined detectives who rummage through the byways and margins of newsprint limbo in search of forgotten wonders. Artists Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, David Heatley and others started sharing their obscure enthusiasms with Dan Nadel, an award-winning New York designer, writer and publisher of the fiercely innovative visual-verbal anthology The Ganzfeld (it’s German for the ‘whole field’ but pronounced in the US like ‘Gones-ville’).
Nadel’s further researches convinced him even more that these largely unsung artists deserved attention and reappraisal. The end result is a gorgeous hardback, Art Out Of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969 (Abrams). Across its 320 pages, he presents complete comic strip and comicbook stories by 29 lesser-known or often unknown mavericks and innovators. Faithfully reproduced from the printed pages, their material spans from 1900, and the vast, virgin canvas of the Sunday ‘Funnies’ in the broadsheet newspapers, to 1969, by which time the infrastructure for underground publishing and retail was in place to allow cartoonists a taste of freedom.
Before this point, as Nadel writes in his intro, "there were few places for eccentric talent to publish in the comics’ industry. The medium of comics was virtually inseparable from the business of comics." In this profit-driven marketplace, it is all the more remarkable that most of these inventive, quirky or downright bizarre comic creators were able to carve a niche for themselves.
Nadel comments, "Some were famous in their own time but quickly faded from view, while others were anonymous even as they drew. All of the artists in this book, regardless of their popularity in life, have been consistently and undeservedly under-recognised in death."
So who has he chosen? Some of you may know already, but I doubt if many experts could claim to have heard of them all already. Nadel points out that the majority of his 29 masters are writers as well as artists, and yes, all of them are men, because, as he puts it, "the world of comics was primarily a boys’ club." His own tastes naturally come through, preferring the wacky and cartoonish, whose oddball offerings "constitute an underground that wasn’t."
Refreshingly, he avoids putting them into chronological order or grouping them by their chosen format. Instead, he arranges them into five broad categories according to their notable skills at: building new visual worlds; unleashing the wildest comedy; developing unique draftsmanship; devising prose and plots; and experimenting with the mediums form and style. It’s a refreshing way to see links between differing works, though for my purposes here, I’m going to sort them by their respective arenas, starting with those glorious, large colour newspaper strips.
Spotlighted first here is Harry Grant Dart‘s The Explorigator from 1908, as fanciful and elegant as art nouveau dreamscape as Winsor McCay‘s Little Nemo In Slumberland. Nadel explains that only four of the entire fourteen episodes could be traced to shown in colour, but he neglects to mention that all of them were reprinted, albeit in black and white, in Rick Marshall’s Nemo #5 in 1984. Also delightfully McCay-like is Norman Jennett‘s hapless clown in The Monkey Shines Of Marseleen.
Other strange, short-lived early gems here are Herbert Crowly‘s The Wiggle Much and Gustave Verbeck‘s The Upside Downs. Verbeck’s infamous concept required that he make each strip readable both the right way up and when turned upside down, so the flipped panels made perfect visual and narrative sense to the end. It meant twice the comic for the space of one but must surely have scrambled Verbeck’s brains to do it.
If you’re curious about the origins of some of Chris Ware’s revolutionary approaches, look no further than the pages of Naughty Pete by one Charles Forbell from way back in 1913. The influence of his unconventional layouts, typography and pared-down designs on Ware seems unmistakable.
Other Sunday-page treats, shown in all their faded paper and crumbling edges, include Raymond Ewer‘s elongated Slim Jim, Walter Quermann’s fairytale Hickory Hollow Folks, Charles M. Payne‘s jazzy S’Matter Pop, A.E. Hayward‘s working girl sitcom Someboy’s Stenog and Jefferson Machamer‘s Gags And Gals.
In the serial continuity genre, C.W. Kahles kept readers loyal with his melodramatic cliffhangers in Hairbreadth Harry, while Harry Tuthill used quite wordy, elaborate plotting and fraught domestic troubles in The Bungle Family, one of Art Spiegelman’s favourite strips.
After seeing only one example in Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia Of Comics, it’s wonderful to be able to see and read here an 18-page sequence of Garrett Price‘s White Boy, an unusually evocative portrayal of Native American life. If you want more, a further smattering ran in colour in The Comics Journal #266 last year.
Among the amusing daily strips sampled here are T.E. Powers’ topical Joys And Glooms with his pixie-ish little chorus. Harry Hershfield‘s parody melodrama Dauntless Durham, Stan Mac Govern’s loopy Silly Milly, Cecil Jensen‘s breezy Elmo, and ace animator Gene Deitch‘s 1955-6 Terr’ble Thompson, as modernist and zany as the cartoons he directed for UPA and Terrytoons. Fantagraphics will shortly be compiling the strip’s whole run of dailies and Sundays, re-mastered by the artist, father to underground genius Kim Deitch. A real revelation is Jack’s Diary, an inspired strip but also a comicbook and animated cartoon by Jack Mendelson, all in his faux-naif, child-like style.
And what about comicbooks? Ogden Whitney is singled out for his obese, lollipop-sucking Herbie, said to be based on Whitney as a boy. Whitney’s matter-of-fact style makes the surrealistic absurdities of the stories by Shane O’Shea, alias American Comics Group editor Richard Hughes, all the more unsettling. There were some Herbie reprint comicbooks put out by Roger Broughton’s ACG and Dark Horse, but we need one big Essential compilation please.
Also featured are two clever, timeless short stories and career highpoints: Howard Nostrand‘s What’s Happening At… 8:30pm and Bob Powell‘s Colorama (the original title of Nadel’s book), in which a pair of glasses leech the colour both from the wearer’s vision and from the printed page. It was a pleasure to find the crazy charms of Dick Briefer‘s humorous Frankenstein, Boody Rogers’ strongman Sparky Watts, George Carlson‘s Jingle Jangle Tales (loved by SF writer Harlan Ellison) and Milt Gross’ manic Pete The Pooch selected too. Fletcher Hanks’ weird, stiff Golden Age hero Stardust The Super Wizard, previously reprinted in Raw, also returns. Paul Karasik has researched and interconnected Hanks’s troubled life, family and comics to fashion an intriguing biography, coming soon.
In date order, the book ends in 1969 with the psychotic horrors of Bogeyman by Rory Hayes (1949-83), always the underground’s most alienated outsider prodigy. His complete works cry out to be properly reissued.
The book closes with Nadel’s biographies of all the artists, some long, others short because so little is known about them. Nadel also footnotes two artists he wanted to include: Archie artist Harry Lucey and Tarzan illustrator Jesse Marsh, hailing him as "comics’ Giorgio de Chirico" for his "evocative and mysterious landscapes."
Art Out Of Time is a landmark book, rescuing visionaries from oblivion. They must not be forgotten again.Posted: September 3, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in 2006 in Comics International, the UK leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.