One cartoonist's Hell is another's heaven

One of The New Yorker’s most consistently satisfying cartoonists is Bruce Eric Kaplan, who has a distinctive signature (that little “BEK’ encased in three squares) but doesn’t need it — his blocky, bottom-heavy figures look like nobody else’s. (Except for the anxious, soullessly blank circles they have for eyes, which bring to mind the substantially more optimistic Little Orphan Annie.) His characters are always making deadpan observations that yank clouds of postmodern malaise out of the sky and condense them into bitterly funny pills, or pulling back the curtain on truths we all fear but can’t bear to acknowledge. “This is a little embarrassing to admit,” God informs a newly haloed angel, “but everything that happens happens for no real reason.”

The biggest revelation of all is the focus of Kaplan’s new book, Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell (Simon & Schuster), in which his New Yorker one-panel gags are dropped in favor of storybook format — one drawing per page, with typed text trickling across it — that tells a single story. Readable in just a few minutes, it’s a bedtime story for adults who don’t want to sleep soundly. The premise, after all, is that the modern world’s myriad undeniable annoyances are proof that we’re all actually living out the afterlife’s ugly side, we just haven’t realized it. Sure, it’s a one-note tale, but the note plays big.

Books in which cartoonists stray from comic conventions, pulling dialogue and narration out of their panels and typing them as captions, can often be less satisfying or more ephemeral than their usual work. As a Sandman fan, for instance, I’ve never cared for Neil Gaiman’s outings with prose. One such venture, though, pleased enough readers for enough years that it has been resurrected almost a century after its debut.

Oh Skin-nay! The Days of Real Sport (Drawn and Quarterly) was a 1913 collaboration between Wilbur D. Nesbit and cartoonist Clare Briggs (known professionally as just “Briggs”). A nostalgic romp, it follows a 12-year-old kid through a small town still firmly in the Mark-Twain era. Again, the single-panel pictures here wouldn’t work on their own, except as illustration for the slice-of-life poems (full of cornball replications of rural speech) accompanying them. For most modern readers, the main appeal will be anthropological: The book brings to life the everyday rituals and homely pleasures of a world reliant on ice wagons and wood stoves. But it clearly has a deeper hold on journalist Jeet Heer, who supplies a lovingly thorough biography of the cartoonist as an afterword to this volume, which otherwise is an exact facsimile of the original publication. (Incidentally, Briggs’s turn-of-the-century newspaper strips influenced the first crop of New Yorker cartoonists.)

As otherworldly as Skin-nay feels now, it’s not half as exotic as the work of Marcel Dzama, which is presented in The Berlin Years with the weird, loving care that publisher McSweeney’s devotes to nearly every title in its bookshelf-challenging catalog. While the McSweeney’s journal is more likely to take the form of 30 pamphlets in a cigar box than a single paperback volume, Berlin Years smuggles a recreation of the artist’s notebook within a more conventional portfolio of (suitable for framing!) illustrations. The only informative text, an interview by Sarah Vowell, is printed on the slipcover.

Inside are enigmatic, fantasy-tinged visions that can lean toward gallery-ready imagery (Dzama is known primarily as a fine artist) but more often have the feel of twisted cartoons: Seeing a smiling tree stump handing a cigarette to an ailing man, or a giant bat nibbling a stylish woman’s arm, it’s hard not to imagine the words Charles Addams or Edward Gorey would scribble underneath. Some of the drawings do have witty captions, like the one depicting “the invention of skeletons,” but for denser word-image interplay you must look to the notebook, where found images, Duchampian collisions, and chunks of handwritten text open the door on an imagination where Dracula, Noah’s Ark, and fairy-tale creatures live side by side.

It may sound as scary as living in Hell, but it looks like a lot more fun. 

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