Al Hirschfeld’s Comic Book Design Wit

Al Hirschfeld (1903 – 2003), the irreplaceable theatrical caricaturist for the New York Times, wrote and illustrated an exquisitely wry, beautifully designed (designed with H. Wolff) graphically striking expose of the business that he helped to define titled “Show Business is No Business” (Simon & Shuster, 1951). It is, as Kirkus Reviews stated in 1951 a “once over roughly for the parts and parcels of the theatrical game by on who has been bitten — to the quick. . . . For Mr. Hirschfeld, whose own illustrations are part of the book, gives a ghastly, glacial and acidly glib appraisal of the state of the drama (commercial experimental, musical, etc) in metropolitan New York — with a necessary glance at out of town try-outs. He takes cognizance too of the performances off-stage as well as on — on the part of producers, playwrights, directors, designers, and even actors. He unveils the secrets of auditions for angels and casts, of rehearsals and the final mystery of playhouses. Biting the tongue in the cheek completely off, his survey of the high, low and Broadway to ulcers is bright, light entertainment.”

What I love is how his unmistakable line drawings of plays and players are smartly reproduced using a single color (selected from pale blues, reds, greens and yellows) that highlight and frame the pictorial gems inside. What a great “graphic novel.” Typographically, it is also a four star hit with its various wood and electrotypes heading each thematic chapter (i.e. “Theatres,” “Producers,” “Directors,” “Agents” and so forth), which are subject to his hilarious wit.

I worked with Hirschfeld at the Times Book Review (even though the majority of his drawings were for the Arts & Leisure section) and interviewed him before his death. You can get a PDF from U&lc Volume 16 No. 1 here (page 8).

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