Art Spiegelman and other comics artists have illustrated biographies of cartoonists, but always as short one-shot strips. Now, not one but two entire books of this kind have just been released. Together they offer 100 visual takes on significant, and even revolutionary, pioneers in the field. One is an anthology edited by designer/art director Monte Beauchamp, with whom I Blab!-bed in an Imprint feature a while back. The second is by famed comics illustrator Drew Friedman, who also shows up in Beauchamp’s book.
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World is groundbreaking as the first comics history book composed entirely of comics stories. And Beauchamp uses the term “cartoonists” broadly enough to encompass creators of not only comic books and syndicated strips with superheroes and satire, but also single-panel jokes and full animations, caricature and kiddie lit, and even European comics and manga.
His lineup goes back to Rodolphe Töpffer, Winsor McCay, and Lynd Ward and on up to today’s Robert Crumb. The Chicago-based Beauchamp also throws out a home town curveball with Hugh Hefner. Hef, you see, was a failed gag cartoonist who bounced back as the editor of a successful magazine that published Shel Silverstein and Annie Fanny funnies. Oh, and foldouts of naked woman.
Then there’s the art, mostly six to eight pages, and each rendered by top-tier talents. And Beauchamp’s done an expert job in pairing his 16 contributors with their subjects. Not all the results are equally successful: the less inspired don’t veer much from a conventional narrative approach. But the majority are remarkable enough to make the book well worth the price. And the best, by artists who are clearly devoted to paying homage to their mentors, are stunning.
Peter Kuper’s take on Harvey Kurtzman, Denis Kitchen’s on Dr. Seuss, and Friedman’s on Crumb are among the most extraordinary: They’re richly textured, imaginative, and insightful. And they powerfully convey, both verbally and visually, just how and why their visionary idols have been so influential and have earned their iconic status in the history of the graphic arts.
Comics history deserves an entire series of books narrated in graphic form that enrich our insights into the creative roots, processes, and legacies of its key players. And a book this praiseworthy, with artists this talented, offers a solid foundation for such a development.
Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books zooms in on the evolution of America’s pamphlet-style comic during its all-in-color-for-a-dime days. It includes 12 dozen greater and lesser known comics artists, writers, editors, and publishers … and one well-intentioned but evil psychiatrist. It opens with Max Gaines birthing the form in the 1930s, travels through its Golden Age, and concludes on a downbeat note in the 1950s, with Dr. Frederic Wertham, the driving force behind the crash and burn of three decades of intense artistic and commercial experimentation and expansion.
Friedman’s book adapts the template for his Old Jewish Comedians series which, not surprisingly, was originally edited by Beauchamp. His accompanying text is mostly rudimentary synopsis, with touches of opinionated commentary. But let’s face it, everyone will really pick up the book for the meticulously nuanced renderings. And oh, what renderings.
The most rewarding tell their tales through facial expressions, gestures, surroundings, and other subtle details. The standouts are the working-class heroes whose tenement lives and hardscrabble struggles are primarily responsible for laying the groundwork for the high-quality graphic novels and many other achievements in sequential narrative that we enjoy today. And on the flip side, for superhero movies.
Friedman’s book shares Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Kirby with Beauchamp’s, which also viciously caricatures the sinister Doc Wertham in four different tales. But rather than competitors, both volumes should be seen as companions that complement and supplement each other.