People of the Internet, I present to you Brazilian cartoonist J. Carlos, one of the unheralded geniuses of clear-line jazz cartooning of the 1920s. John Held Jr. is an obvious influence, as is the rounded figures of animation which would eventually coalesce into the Disney house style; but he’s just as much trailblazer as follower here, and ever since coming across a couple of books in a university library half a decade ago, I’ve never been able to see enough of his work to satisfy me.
But there’s plenty of it here, though you have to be willing to navigate a sucky Flash module to get to it (and, since it’s in Portuguese, either have at least a basic familiarity with Romance languages or be willing to click around and see what happens). I especially recommend his covers for the magazine Para Todos, (the October 8, 1927 issue is above), which are more or less breathtaking throughout the 20s and 30s. His signature blend of Art Deco stylishness with the psychedelic goofery of animation, as well as his immaculate design sense, is an ongoing inspiration to me, not that I’d ever attempt shape-making on such a bravura scale.
Back in December, I was on a magazine cartooning kick and talked a bit about cartoonist Ralph Barton. In that discussion, I linked to this photograph of Eugene O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey, who left Barton for O’Neill.
The above cartoon, drawn by Ralph Barton, appeared in Life magazine around that time. (I took it from here, which indicates a rabbit hole down which I could fall for days.) Talk about sublimating private pain into public art; holy shit.
An Ethel Hays newspaper cartoon from the mid-to-late 20s (the copyright notice is inconclusive, and my my memory — I scanned and cleaned this years ago — is vague). Hays’ primary subject was the flapper, particularly in her relations to men, and her line was unremittingly gorgeous. Look at the details which even this (cleaned-up) photocopy of a microfilm printout preserves: the tight rolls on the man’s waistcoat, the insouciant bunching and draping of the woman’s dress, the tossed-off elegance of the entire composition. Like a distaff John Held, Jr. or Ralph Barton, her work was the perfect graphic representation of the foolish, outrageously beautiful 1920s.
As humor, it doesn’t hold up nearly so well as it does graphically; but the fine-grained domestic observation suits my mood just now. More about that later.
She: “As if I didn’t know! Why, that’s the latest thing in flower bowls!”
He: “That’s a cheese dish! Mother used to have one a long time ago!”
Caption: Don’t argue over the wedding presents — compromise n’ use ‘em for tobacco jars — or ash trays!
There is a certain school of thought prevalent in the quiet tidepools of cultural discourse which are reserved for the discussion of magazine cartooning which holds that the perfect cartoon is one in which text and image are interdependent, neither carrying much meaning on their own but creating out of the juxtaposition of picture and caption a gestalt which produces a vivid reaction — usually laughter, but sometimes (as in the Reginald Marsh I posted a few days ago) other sensations.
Anyone who’s familiar with modern New Yorker cartooning will recognize this as being rare in the pages of the magazine today — far more typical is a nondescript picture of two people talking, with the caption carrying the entire joke. If it were still fashionable to run epigrams in magazines to make up space at the end of a story or essay*, these cartoons would work just fine as pure text.
I bring all this up because while I don’t agree with the original proposition — it’s always a mistake to judge creative work according to a theory, so that Harveyites** are always asking yourself “is this a balanced gestalt?” rather than “is this funny?” — I’m also bored by modern New Yorker cartoons, which are mostly made by writers who can draw, rather than artists who can think. (Exceptions abound.) And the above cartoon is a refutation of both views. The caption on its own isn’t particularly funny — but neither is it given any particular twist by being attatched to that picture.
*You are speaking to a man who has spent not countless, but at a minimum five, hours rooting through old Smart Sets and Vanity Fairs on microfilm in university libraries. The accumulation of worthless knowledge!
**The most notable proponent of this view is cartoonist and cartoon scholar R. C. Harvey, who knows better.
EDIT: I had a lot more typed out, about the narrative created by the caption, but Tumblr ate it. Never mind. You’re all smart people; you don’t need me to tell you.
Whitney Darrow, Jr., with his highly cartoony figures and loose, engaging washes, probably set the tone for what mid-century magazine cartooning would be like more than any other single figure. Think of the great Esquire and Playboy cartoonists of the 1950s and 60s (Eldon Dedini, Jack Cole) — not to mention the more buttoned-down New Yorker cartoonists of the same period (Charles Saxon, James Stevenson) — and Darrow, far more than any of his peers in the 30s and 40s, is their spiritual and aesthetic father.
Perhaps this is because he did not cultivate a milieu; unlike Hokinson’s matrons, Addams’ creeps, Arno’s leches, or Price’s workingmen*, Darrow had no stock cast (unless “middle-aged businessmen” counts, and everyone drew those), and unlike Thurber’s warring sexes or Steig’s character studies, he had no particular point of view.
But everything he drew looked good, and he had a sharp, adult sense of humor which in some of his followers would turn merely satirical or merely smutty. This cartoon, captioned “Their little minds are busy every minute,” is a classic example of his ability to use sex not for sex’s sake but as a path into character and even story — the narrative arc of a great single-panel cartoon is brief, but vivid.
*We’ll get around to it.
Of all the classic New Yorker cartoonists, Helen E. Hokinson is the one a) most likely to be overlooked in favor of the splashier, harder-edged (and male) artists, and b) who most fully inhabited and developed a little universe all her own. Not even Charles Addams, who got a TV show named after him, was so thoroughly consistent in his vision.
It’s a universe of plump little suburban socialites, well-meaning to a woman and utterly ineffectual. Men appear in her cartoons rarely, and mostly as props — like the little dogs they carry or the dresses they gossip over, their sons, husbands, and occasional lecturers are incidental to their quite earnest attempts to keep up with modern thought, be fashionable, and maintain their social standing in a world whose rules none of them ever entirely understands. (This is entirely different from what men mean in, say, Clare Booth Luce’s/George Cukor’s The Women: the source of power and privilege, and the tense if unseen center around which everything revolves. Hokinson’s women are much less intelligent, but far more self-sufficient.)
The first time I saw this cartoon, I was simply puzzled: where was the joke? I honestly had to notice the speaker’s eyeglasses and the modern dresses on the audience to realize that it wasn’t supposed to be set in ancient Greece. And then I had to learn about Chautauqua lectures, the history of amateur theatrics, and the difference between what was seen as cool and what was seen as lame in the 1920s and 30s before I understood the context in which this cartoon was meant to prompt not just laughter, but recognition.
(Briefly, Hokinson is gently mocking women of a certain age/social class/educational level who think it would be a good idea to “get up” an amateur production of a classical drama — or, worse, create their own fake classical drama, because after all anything Greek or Roman is “educational.” And there’s a lot of social observational stuff in there too, like the breezy confidence of the speaker as opposed to the worried stage fright and fussiness of the offstage bunch. Oh, and the caption is “Approach, women of Athens!”*)
There are a lot of other Hokinson cartoons which are more pointedly funny, more easily understandable today, or more redolent of A Time Long Vanished (wistful sigh), but I have special affection for this one as the rare cartoon which only gets better and more deeply human the more I know about people. Which is a lot less than Helen Hokinson did.
*If you’re wondering why I keep typing out these captions even when they’re plainly legible, it’s so Google can find these posts. I know; no one was wondering.
(That caption once again is, “Oh, she’s been acting that way all day. Someone told her she looks like Katharine Hepburn.”)
Mean, but funny. In fact, as mean as George Price ever got, which wasn’t very.
The weird thing is … you can see it. That’s how much control he had over his line, which looks so sloppy at first glance.
While I’ve been looking at cartoons that I think are artistically important or at least interesting in some quasi-literary way, there are a whole lot of cartoons I love because I just love them, man, you know?
Carl Rose drew a lot of them, especially in the mid-to-late 1930s, and got full pages and sometimes two-page spreads on which to display his craft.
This is one of my favorite examples of his oversized, crowded panels which you can spend minutes getting lost in the details of. The caption, which provides the pretext for the drawing, is almost eye-rolling in its “satire”: A Caravan Of California Millionaires, Fleeing Eastward From The State Income Tax, Encamps For The Night In Hostile Wisconsin Territory.
But it’s the details that make it work on the level of joyful absurdity, rather than purely satirically. A lesser comic mind would have just circled the limousines and left it at that; Rose has titans of finance arguing over a map of the U.S., heavily-furred-up wives playing bridge, snooty servants lighting the candles for a four-course meal, a socially insecure guy still in his car trying to get his tie to come out right, and hired goons all around the frame making sure no raiders are coming to scalp our heroes.
It’s a typical New Yorker cartoon of its era in poking gentle fun at the very rich, rather than being socially responsible and calling for their heads on a platter (this was published in 1937, in the middle of the Great Depression), but however strong my feeling of class resentment, I can’t help being charmed by this image of ridiculously opulent survivalism. Anything that calls to mind Chesterton’s maxim about “we few” always meaning “we happy few” scores points with me.
The single greatest expression of pure narrative cartooning ever made by human hands.
The Sunday, January 30, 1927 edition of Polly & Her Pals by Cliff Sterrett. Polly’s the smush-faced blonde in the first panel. The guy with the mustache is her Paw.
I always have been, and remain today, in awe of this strip. Sterrett’s careful control over every element, the way the line of identical black-tuxed men leads the eye throughout, the way it’s paced not (just) like a joke, but like a jazz score — you can hear the crashing drum solo in the penultimate panel. And then there’s the sexual sublimation, the class commentary, and the use of color.
I’m not remotely trying to be provocative, just making a statement of fact, when I say that this is one of the great works of American art in the 1920s, along with Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Bessie Smith’s recording of the “St. Louis Blues,” and Buster Keaton’s One Week. If arts education was what it should be, every schoolchild in America would know this comic strip by heart.
Apologies for the photocopy-level quality of the image; some people think that this kind of thing is acceptable in a published book.
Anyway, I was flipping through my collection tonight and came across a scrawled note in the margin (in my own hand, from several years ago): “By Ralph Barton, who later shot himself.” I was, I recall, fascinated with the comedy of suicide at the time; gentle reader, draw your own conclusions.
As it happened, Barton shot himself over a woman, or so his suicide note claimed. (The guy in that portrait is Eugene O’Neill. Of all the motherfuckers to lose your girl to.) He was a unique figure even in the world of early-twentieth-century cartooning and illustration, when those fields were far more prestigious than they are today, a boulevardier and playboy who contributed to the modern theater as much as to modern magazine art, and, well, moved in the sort of fashionable circles where it was possible for America’s greatest living dramatist to steal his wife.
The picture is early Barton, which is to say largely decorative — it’s a masterful composition — and without the tense floridity of his later style. (Cf. here, though those are still very clear-line.) The man’s geometric posture owes too much to early John Held, Jr., and apart from the calligraphic simplification of her dress, the girl is utterly generic. The pleasure, such as it is in this cartoon, is in the mordant caption.
Which, for the record, reads:
ARDENT SUITOR: “If you don’t marry me I’ll blow out my brains.”
“Oh, no; I don’t think you will.”
“You’re not a good enough shot.”
This was published in the early 1920s, before single-line captions had become the norm. Barton left behind relatively few examples of the newer style, but then he died just as it was taking over.
(Click through for a clearer picture.)
Another New Yorker cartoon, this one from 1934. It’s not funny at all — the caption reads “This is her first lynching.” — and in every retrospective of early New Yorker drawings has always taken pride of place.
Reginald Marsh was a painter and illustrator from the “Ashcan school” of the teens and twenties, a movement that championed social realism and didn’t at all mind being propagandistic in the right directions. They mostly got published in short-lived left-wing periodicals and their gallery showings were brief and poorly attended.
But their work retains an uncommon vitality today. Look at the many different faces and postures in this drawing, each distinct, each with its own story of glee or anger or guilt or curiosity or impassivity. The method of picture-making Marsh deploys here — layering charcoal shadows, then picking out details with a brush afterwards — is simply masterful, and the idyllic farmhouse-and-tree in the background, the stuff of amateur landscape studies, provides an ironic counterpoint to the grim subject matter revealed by the caption.
But it’s the look on the face of the little girl, the “her” of the caption, that chills to the bone. There is neither the sort of horror we would expect nor the kind of uncomprehending sense of fun that might humanize her. She is studying the scene carefully, taking it in, her eyes cold, her mouth set. Another killer is born.
There are a handful of cartoons which stick with me, resonate in the back of my mind, and help explain the world to me as well as anything else has ever done, a song or movie or poem or painting or what have you.
This is one of those, a portrait in gray washes that tells an entire Updike novel’s worth of story in a single image. The caption (Holy Wedlock, 11:30 P.M.) can be taken either as satirical — look what you’re in for, you marrying suckers! — or as a mere descriptive: This is what it is to be married, to be an adult, to have built a life.
Take a look at the guy. His mouth is an almost perfectly straight line, giving no hint of emotion. But the bags under his eyes show that he’d like to sleep just as much as his wife and baby — but of course he can’t, he’s the man of the house. And almost hidden in the line of his hat is a single raised eyebrow.
There is a world in that half-circle. He is both challenging the viewer — wanna make somethin’ of it, pal? — and ruefully acknowledging the straits he’s in — yeah, I know, don’t make a federal case out of it. He’s awake, protective of his little brood, but self-aware enough to be able to ironize the condition.
It’s the least sentimental cartoon in the world: look how both hands are holding the baby, and think how much more treacly the image would be if he had one arm around his wife. She’s sleeping on him, and he doesn’t necessarily want her to be. But you know, you put up with a lot in Holy Wedlock.
This cartoon originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1936 or 37. It was one of the first to establish William Steig as a shrewd observer of humanity, far more than a mere gag-a-day scribbler. Most people today probably know him best for his children’s books of the 60s and 70s (Sylvester And The Magic Pebble, Shrek!) but his entire body of work is deeply humane and wonderfully observed.
I’ve suddenly and without warning gone on an Old Cartooning kick, pulling dusty old books off of back shelves, leafing through pages stiff with age and losing myself in proper old lithographic ink stamped into a page; run your fingers across the images and you can still feel the sixty, seventy, eighty-year-old impressions.
The above was drawn by Art Young ca. 1923 or thereabouts. He mostly did political cartooning for socialist magazines — some of his more firebreathing efforts could still apply to the current economic clusterfuck — but when he cared to cast an eye over the social changes of the era he was even more broadly humane. The caption, in case you can’t read it, is:
“Mother, when you were a girl, didn’t you find it a bore to be a virgin?”
More to come if I can either manage to work the scanner or scavenge what’s already online.