Thursday, December 09, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 309 (12/9) -- Denys Wortman's New York

Well over ninety-nine percent of humanity is forgotten fifty years after they die -- no matter how smart, or beautiful, or accomplished, or tough they might have been, their memory slips away and they're left as just another member of the vast mass of anonymous dead. And it has to be that way: we don't know well all the people we could that are alive, out of the six billion of us, so how can we keep up the names of the dead as well? But, still, every so often, one of those forgotten has a chance to leap back up into public consciousness -- and we always want to applaud that, to root for the forgotten and dead, in the silent hope that we, too, will be remembered and appreciated in some unlikely way long after we're gone.

So the story of Denys Wortman is tremendously appealing: he drew a single-panel slice-of-life feature, Metropolitan Movies, for the New York World from 1924 to 1954, among a lot of other illustration work, but was almost entirely forgotten after his death in 1958. (The bulk of his work -- over five thousand illustrations -- mouldered in his son's shed for thirty-five years before he was rediscovered by James Sturm of the Center for Cartoon Studies.) Wortman's work isn't much like the conventional pillars of the comics pantheon, either of his day or ours: it's reflective rather than demanding, the product of a seeing eye rather than a defining sensibility, and he avoided larger narratives and stories throughout his career. And that makes it tremendously valuable now: Wortman's Metropolitan Movies are amazing records of how people -- mostly working-class New Yorkers of the Lower East Side -- lived over the course of an entire generation.

Denys Wortman's New York is the first book of Wortman's art in over forty years and the first retrospective of his work ever: an amazingly immersive journey, arranged as if to show one long day in the city, ably curated by Sturm and Brandon Elston. Some of the details of life shift over the long stretch of time this book covers -- the standard entertainment shifts from sitting on the stoop and watching the world to radio and even (in a cartoon or two from the early '50s) to television. But the feel of these lives is remarkably similar, from the depths of the Depression to the war years and on to prosperity afterward -- Wortman captures the everyday-ness of all of these days, and so they all flow together to make one master day, a perfect, full day that never existed.

Wortman's art is soft, with a look of pencils and charcoal rather than ink, and looks almost finished rather than completed, as if Wortman just stepped away from his drawing board for a second, or that this world is an instant away from coalescing into reality. His faces are expressive and individual, but his line isn't as loose as it may look -- there's a mass of carefully observed and precisely rendered detail in each of these drawings, making them several hundred windows into a world now gone. He was a master of one of the trickiest things in drawing: the careful composition that looks artless, the panel that's so much like life that the artifice is completely forgotten.

So Wortman's regular New Yorkers work and shop and play, go to school and the park and Coney Island, fight with their spouses, play cards, go to shows and the dentist and the beach, laugh and complain and make jokes about their lives, and congregate on front stoops and back fire escapes to talk and pass the time. All the way, each drawing has a caption -- usually a line of dialogue, and usually pretty long for a caption, but never too long. And those captions -- many or most of them, an afterword explains, by Wortman's wife Hilda, who also took thousands of photos for reference over the years -- capture brilliantly the voices of thousands of regular city dwellers, in all of their moods and styles.

Denys Wortman's New York is a wonder of a book, brilliantly bringing back to life a time and place that hardly anyone left alive can remember, and giving it a depth and energy rare in any cartoonist. Wortman is the rediscovery of the year, and his New York is a place to dive into again and again, a fully real world populated with a vast array of real people. Like Wortman, this book comes out of nowhere to charm and amaze what I hope will be a large audience -- of fans of great cartooning and armchair social historians alike.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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