Two New Cartoon Histories on 100 Old Comics Innovators

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.

Mark Alan Stamaty deftly applies his own aesthetic to convey Jack Kirby’s dimension, intensity, and general spirit.

Mark Alan Stamaty deftly applies his own aesthetic to convey Jack Kirby’s dimension, intensity, and slam-bang spirit, if not his exact likeness.

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 Legends_600px-300x194approach. 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.

Nora Krug enters the mind of Tintin’s Hergé.

Nora Krug travels into the mind of Tintin’s creator, Hergé.

Peter Kuper’s graphics for Harvey Kurtzman swings from playful “Hey, Look!” homage to full-blown “Mad”-ness.

Peter Kuper’s spirited graphic approach to Harvey Kurtzman swings from a playful two-fisted tale to full-blown “Mad”-ness.

Chas Addams would approve of Marc Rosenthal’s amusingly macabre approach, which includes Addams’ ashes telling his story from inside his burial urn.

Chas Addams would approve of Marc Rosenthal’s amusingly macabre approach, a first person narrative emanating from burial urn ashes.

It’s no stretch for Denis Kitchen to tackle Dr. Seuss’s psychedelically organic surrealism.

It’s no stretch for the psychedelically-inclined Denis Kitchen to tackle Dr. Seuss’s organic surrealism.

Dan Zettwoch wisely pays tribute to Osamu Tezuka’s legacy as well as his life.

Dan Zettwoch deserves credit for paying tribute to Osamu Tezuka’s lasting influence as well as his life.

Greg Clarke’s admiration for Edward Gorey comes across in his delicate, respectful linework, lettering, and color palette.

Greg Clarke honors Edward Gorey with his delicate linework, lettering, and color palette.

Arnold Roth, who deserves his own place in a future edition, applies his appropriately fanciful flair and wit to caricaturist Al Hirschfeld's story.

Arnold Roth, who’s already earned a top spot in a future edition, applies his delightfully fanciful flair and wit to Al Hirschfeld’s story.

Ryan Heshka’s art treatment enlivens an otherwise matter-of-fact Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster story.

Ryan Heshka’s art treatment enlivens a matter-of-fact Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster story.

Drew Friedman’s critical depiction of Robert Crumb adds a valuable dimension.

Drew Friedman’s personal and critical perspective on Robert Crumb adds valuable dimension.

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.

So enjoy.

Publisher Lev Gleason stands by his pulp product, with his brow a bit more furrowed than on his source photo, inset.

Publisher Lev Gleason stands by his pulp product, with his brow a bit more furrowed than on his source photo, inset.

The man who inspired the Eisner Awards is speckled with Friedman’s Jewish Comic Liver Spots™ and surrounded by vacant-eyed fanboys.

The man who inspired the Eisner Awards is speckled with Friedman’s Jewish Comic Liver Spots™ and surrounded by vacant-eyed fanboys.

Mac Raboy gets the straightforward treatment.

Relatively obscure but highly skilled Fawcett artist Mac Raboy gets a straightforward treatment.

50 years on, Russ Heath still seems peeved that Roy Lichtenstein transformed one of his panels from a hacked-out war story into an enduring piece of high art.

50 years on, Russ Heath still seems peeved that Roy Lichtenstein transformed a panel he drew for a hacked-out war story into an enduring piece of high art.

Fiery Frank Frazetta strikes a tight, steely-eyed stance.

Conan the Barbarian’s fiery Frank Frazetta strikes a tight, steely-eyed stance.

The reclusive Steve Ditko is rendered in soft focus.

The reclusive Steve Ditko is rendered in soft focus.

Aspiring fine artist Bernard Krigstein contemplates his end-of-the-line comic book job.

Aspiring fine artist Bernard Krigstein contemplates his options while working an end-of-the-line comic book gig.

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