A History of the Overlooked

A panel from Sparky Watts by Boody Rogers, one of several obscure comic-strip artists featured in Dan Nadel's Art Out of Time.

Plenty of books have popped up to tell the history of comics, marching through such familiar names as Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Popeye, and The Spirit. But newspapers were a huge business back in the early 20th century, and those famous strips weren't nearly enough to fill the pages. What about all the other stuff?

In Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries,1900-69 (Abrams Books) Dan Nadel sets out to reclaim artists from the heaps of yesteryear's newsprint. He finds more than two dozen cartoonists, almost all of whom will be unknown to readers (if print-history buff Chris Ware doesn't know all these names, I assure you, few will), and lets their work speak for itself with generous chunks of full-color, full-page excerpts.

Stylistically, it's easy to peg some of these creations to their more famous cousins. Plenty of the artists, for instance, are inspired by the whimsy of Winsor McCay. But they do new, weird things within their formats. "The Wiggle Much," for instance, starring bizarre creatures that look like mash-ups of real animals, appears to be from another dimension.

In other cases, men assigned to fill pages of anonymous comic books appear to be entertaining themselves without worrying about any audience at all. Bob Powell's short story "Colorama" is a Twilight Zone-esque excuse to play with swirling, garish forms; if it were from the '60s instead of the '50s, you'd attribute it to LSD.

Nadel finds substance in both the endearingly awkward draftsmanship of Fletcher Hanks' sci-fi stories and the seemingly conventional humor of Harry J. Tuthill's "The Bungle Family." He finds cartooning styles, like Charles Forbell's highly graphic aesthetic, that seem unrelated to anything else of their period. And of course, he collects strips that are just plain funny.

I wish I had access to whatever archives Nadel got this stuff from, though I suspect a lot of it came from years of garage-sale and thrift-store expeditions.

In his introduction to Art Out of Time, Nadel paints the beginning of the era of newspaper comics as a gold rush, with newspapers hiring anybody who could hold a pen in the hopes of creating a new hit comic strip. Skip forward a few decades and you'll find a similar mindset fueling the 1980s superhero boom - a world mocked without pity in Dan Clowes's hilarious Pussey! (Fantagraphics). Reprinted recently and overlapping thematically with Clowes's Art School Confidential (both were first serialized in Clowes's Eightball) Pussey tells the story of a fanboy who becomes a star cartoonist despite having no artistic instincts at all. Could the author have been bitter about the hacks who became millionaires in that ugly era? A frank new introduction tells all.

Also of note: A new batch of Ignatz Series titles is upon us, from that international collective of publishers bent on exposing talented cartoonists to readers outside their home countries. Two new series - Marco Corona's Reflections and Leila Marzocchi's Niger - are probably available by the time you read this, but already on shelves are the second issues of Wish You Were Here, Insomnia, and Babel. The last of those is David B.'s serialized quasi-sequel to the justly acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel Epileptic. David B. also has a long new piece in the Spring/Summer issue of Mome (Fantagraphics), a magical and beautifully rendered Arabian Nights tale called "The Veiled Prophet." Not that you needed any additional reasons to pick up the latest Mome ...


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