Friday, December 26, 2008

Three Old Books of Cartoons

I've been very lackadaisical about my movie & book reviews since the big family vacation back in early November -- I guess once I got off the bicycle, it was twice as hard to get back on it. (And, so far, being on vacation hasn't been helping, either.) This post, for example, was started a good month ago and left abandoned when I discovered that none of these three books had pre-existing cover scans on the Internet I could use. But this time I'll push to the end...I hope.

While I was in Charleston, I found my way into a nice used-books shop -- let's see if they're on the Internet...of course! Blue Bicycle Books -- and bought a small stack of things. I forgot to do an "Incoming Books" post as soon as I did -- unaccountably, since I'm usually so compulsive. And now I've come back home and those books have slipped off into the to-be-read piles.

But I can write about the three books of cartoons I read while I was still in Charleston (mostly while sitting in a not-heavily-trafficked booth during the Blackbaud Conference for Nonprofits). And why not? They're all old, and they're all cartoons, and that's enough for a connection.

They're all long out of print, without easily accessible covers online, but let's see if I can scan them for you.

What About Me?
by Edward Koren -- Koren was one of the quintessential, maybe the quintessential, New Yorker cartoonist of the '70s and early '80s, with his shaggy, hairy nonspecific creatures (and almost equally hairy and shaggy humans) talking about their feelings and relationships in High Self-Actualization. Like all artists who are so thoroughly of one era, it's a bit jarring to realize that he's still around -- a quick Google showed that he won a major art award in his native Vermont just last year, and that he's illustrated some children's books recently.

What About Me? is from 1989, collecting Koren's cartoons from the mid-to-late eighties -- that is, just as his work was beginning to seem slightly out-of-date instead of incisive. The shagginess of his characters wasn't the problem -- it was the shagginess of their thoughts. As the world changed, bit by bit, year by year, it stopped being an Edward Koren world and became a Bruce Eric Kaplan world. And, suddenly, all of those Koren characters saying things like "Is there someone here who is sensitive to the banking needs of women?" or "Daddy has to clear his head for a few minutes before he can deal with 'Babar'" -- both examples from this book -- looked creaky and old-fashioned. Koren's work isn't always all that touchy-feely, but he was always one of the mushier New Yorker cartoonists; his entries in what Thurber called the eternal battle between men and women are always set during eras of detente, if not downright peace.

Koren's characters are nearly always smiling; they're not quite smug -- they're much too self-questioning for that -- but they definitely believe in their own goodness and place in the world. And his work is funny in a similarly mild way: the punches he throws are all pulled, the criticisms are all constructive ones. A Koren cartoon would never go for the jugular. I'm surprised he didn't make a comeback earlier this decade, back when irony was dead -- Koren cartoons have only the mildest, most positive kinds of irony. So his work is pleasant -- especially those scratchy, looping drawings of smiling mouths and huge noses, like Muppets -- but there's not a whole lot more than that.

All Ends Up by S. Harris -- This is a collection of cartoons originally from American Scientist, published by a firm called William Kaufmann in 1980, with a foreword by Linus Pauling. Harris was the great cartoonist of science (and probably still is) -- before The Far Side, his work was the most commonly found on the doors of university offices, and it might be creeping back in front now, a decade after Gary Larson retired.

These are all science jokes, for an audience of scientists, so the bar is pretty high -- the captions are things like "I love hearing that lonesome wail of the train as the magnitude of the frequency of the wave changes due to the Doppler effect" and "You both have something in common. Dr. Rudolph has discovered a particle which nobody has ever seen, and Prof. Higbe has discovered a galaxy which nobody has ever seen." It can be, like all of Harris's work, a bit dry -- his cartoons tend to get a reaction of "that's funny" rather than an actual laugh.

But, especially at that point in his career, Harris had a line that was so loose that it threatened to collapse into one big scrawl on the page, so the pure joy of his drawings adds a lot to these cartoons.

Sick Sick Sick by Jules Feiffer -- I'm terribly ill-read in Feiffer; I've seen his stuff here and there (and read several of his recent books for children to my own sons), but I've never gone out of my way to catch up on his work. There was a small pile of old McGraw-Hill paperbacks of Feiffer at Blue Bicycle, and I ended up taking this one. It's a collection of some of his earliest work; the weekly cartoons that he drew for the Village Voice (and eventually for syndication, under the title Feiffer); it was Feiffer's first book, in 1958.

(The edition I got doesn't go back quite all that way, but it's a fourteenth printing of that original paperback, and is from sometime in the early '60s.)

Feiffer dug into the post-war anomie like no one else, and was able to make it universal -- what looked like the portrait of a very particular time fifty years ago now looks like just the modern human condition. (Especially when his characters say things like "What I wouldn't give to be a non-conformist like all those others" -- though their speeches are usually much longer and hard to summarize, full of self-doubt and recrimination, throttled longing and fear.) Sick Sick Sick -- this book, and the early years of Feiffer's weekly cartoon in general -- are a lot like Schulz's Peanuts of the same era -- with characters grown-up and worried about even more things, and able to talk about sex and fallout and Sputnik and office jobs directly, without codes or juvenilization.

(All of the cartoons in this book, and about six years more, are reprinted in the recent book Explainers, the first of a series that aims to collect all of the Feiffer cartoons, decade by decade.)

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