Graphic Lit: "Art Out of Time"
"ART OUT OF TIME: UNKNOWN COMICS VISIONARIES, 1900-1969"
by Dan Nadel
Abrams, 320 pages, $40.
Just about every art form, from film to macrame, has its collection of "great lost artists" — folks who, for one reason or another, never were able to gain any sort of acclaim commensurate with their obvious talents.
Or, perhaps worse, time has dimmed their fame and relegated them to obscurity.
Comics in particular have had more than their share of these sob stories, mainly because until recently they have held a pretty low position on the totem pole of entertainment.
Thankfully, there are people out there like author Dan Nadel, who in his new book "Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969," attempts to shine a light on some of the long-forgotten talents of the industry.
While there might be one or two names here that ring a bell (Milt Gross, Harry Hershfield), it’s a safe bet that the bulk of the art in these pages will be completely unfamiliar to you. Within the pages of this coffee-table tome lie a wealth of astonishing discoveries. It’s the cartoonists’ equivalent of finding a trunk of jewelry in your aunt’s attic.
Nadel organizes the book by subject matter. Artists are grouped according to their "interests." One chapter, for example, focuses on "slapstick." Another deals with storytelling, another with art for art’s sake and so on.
The text is minimal. Nadel provides a short introduction and some biographical information on each artist, but that’s about it.
It’s all for the best, though, as it gives the reader lots more room to pore over the strips and stories provided.
And what stories these are! I was floored by the work of Fletcher Hanks, an almost indescribably bad comic book artist whose work nonetheless has a primal urgency that works in spite of itself.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Walter Quermann’s delightfully detailed funny animal strip "Hickory Hollow Folks." Then there’re the inventive layouts of Charles Forbell’s "Naughty Pete," a turn-of-the-century strip that could easily run in any contemporary anthology. And Dick Briefer’s decidedly loopy take on Frankenstein.
There are artists whose work I’ve seen once or twice in the occasional historical anthology but never at length. I have a much greater appreciation now, for example, of C.W. Kahles marvelous "Hairbreadth Harry" and Charles M Payne’s "S’Matter Pop?"
Of course, some nitpickers (like myself) might question just how obscure some of these artists are. Fantagraphics, for example, just reprinted Milt Gross’ classic parody "She Done Him Wrong." And though Gene Dietch’s "Terrible Thompson" strip is now largely forgotten, the artist himself met with much success later on in the field of animation.
But these are minor quibbles. The only real problem with the book has to do with its size. The book is large enough that comic book reprints and more modern strips are easily understood, but older, larger comic strips from the early part of the 20th century are virtually unreadable.
Herbert Crowley’s "The Wiggle Much," for example, is one of the strangest strips I’ve ever come across, but you’ll need a magnifying glass to read the text.
That complaint aside, there’s not a single artist here who doesn’t deserve to be in this book, let alone deserve his own retrospective. (Indeed, Fantagraphics will be publishing a Fletcher Hanks collection sometime next year).
Whether you’re a scholar of comics or a casual fan, "Art Out of Time" is an absolutely essential volume.
Also in stores
"Sex, Rock & Optical Illusions"
by Victor Moscoso
Fantagraphics Books, 146 pages, $34.95.
Speaking of cartoonists not receiving their due, here’s an impressive coffee-table aggregation of work from Moscoso, whose work usually gets overshadowed by his fellow "Zap Comix" contributors — namely Robert Crumb and Rick Griffith. Let's hope this collection of strips, rock posters, sketches and other drawings will go a long way toward a reappreciation of the artist’s work.