Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Visual Pyrotechnics


Having been obsessed with early American comic strips since I was a little kid, I was thrilled to get my grubby mitts on a new book called Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900-1969.

Now that I've pored over it, I'm still enthusiastic, but I'm also a bit more inclined to look this horse in the mouth. The biggest problem is that some of the strips are reduced so much as to be nearly unreadable (e.g., Herbert Crowley's mindboggling 1910 strip "The Wiggle Much," which - frustratingly enough - is one of the handful of strips I've never come across before).

Also, the anthology jumps to 1969 for no other reason than to accomodate the acid-casualty scrawlings of Rory Hayes, a marginal figure in the SF underground comics scene whose work inexplicably appealed to Robert Crumb. My gripe here isn't just aesthetic; one thing that fascinates me about certain strips published between, say, 1900 and 1920 is that they represent a degree of freedom and creativity in ephemeral mass art that hasn't really been matched since. Including any underground artist - let alone Hayes - muddies these waters, and also serves to perpetuate the absurd notion that these early comic artists were somehow "ahead of their time."

The author, Dan Nadel, claims that "experimentation" initially flourished in comics because there were no standards in place. But that doesn't make sense. Why would a lack of standards lead to the laboriously florid phantasmagoria of early American comics? My argument would be that this phantasmagoria actually reflects the standards of the mainstream visual culture of the era, from Victorian children's books, to sheet music, to advertisements, to the vertiginous architectural follies of Coney Island. (Never mind the influence of Tenniel and Cruikshank on that generation of illustrators). To a fair extent, the style of early comic strips is pretty much what you'd expect it to be: a blend of Victorian bizarrerie with fashionable, widely emulated modern art styles ranging from art nouveau to expressionism.

Why this style expressed the dream-life of that era is the really interesting question, I think, and the romantic notion of the maverick "visionary" artist does little to answer it. Nadel makes the common mistake of assuming that because comic strips were a new medium, work that looks experimental to us was, in fact, experimental rather than comparatively mainstream.

Beyond that, there's the issue of production to consider: how much of the shift away from what Nadel calls "visual pyrotechnics" had to do with changing production methods and economies of scale at major newspapers, as opposed to the advent of a comic-strip "language with structure and rules"? Given that even in this book, the economic realities of the printing and publishing industries restrict the presentation of these strips, I can't help wishing Nadel had addressed this issue. It has interesting implications.

I realize that I'm being a pedant and an ingrate. At the same time, I can't help noticing that in the last five years or so, early comic strips have enjoyed the closest thing to a vogue I've seen in my lifetime. And yet there's really been no serious effort to compile lesser-known strips in a readable format, and far too little effort to place them in any more thoughtful context than that of the "visionary." I know it's expensive to produce books of full-color comic strips, and I've seen enough remaindered anthologies of Polly and Her Pals to know that the audience for this stuff is very, very limited. Still, I can't stop hoping that one day, this work will get the treatment it deserves. That said, anyone who's interested in comics or graphic art has no choice but to pick up Art Out of Time, and to thank Nadel for compiling it.

(Also, anyone who's interested in some of the larger issues here should check out Thers's recent posts over at Whiskey Ashes. He's got much smarter stuff to say about these things than I do.)

5 comments:

Toby Petzold said...

Merry Fitzmas!

Phila said...

Toby Petzold said...
Merry Fitzmas!


Huh?

WHT said...

A bit more focused on recreating the budding technological world of the 1910's to the 1950's, I like the retro stylings of Bruce McCall. You can find used copies of his book "All Meat Looks Like South America" pretty cheap.

quote: "He's Fighting for your BUTTER TARTS"

dan mcenroe said...

how much of the shift away from what Nadel calls "visual pyrotechnics" had to do with changing production methods and economies of scale at major newspapers, as opposed to the advent of a comic-strip "language with structure and rules"?

i would say that the shift to faster but less precises printing methods combined with the need to draw the strips as quickly as possible created the comic strip structure with language and rules.

Phila said...

A bit more focused on recreating the budding technological world of the 1910's to the 1950's, I like the retro stylings of Bruce McCall.

Seconded. McCall's "Uncle Teddy Jingo's Sketch" was a huge influence on whatever sense of humor I have about politics...it detailed the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the style of a McKinley-era boy's magazine. One of the best pieces of political satire ever, for my money.