Monday, October 11, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 250 (10/11) -- Too Soon? by Drew Friedman

One of the consolations of being obscure is the knowledge that you'll never have to wake up in a world where Drew Friedman has caricatured you. Friedman's pen is relentless and his eye is merciless: every foible, every wrinkle or blush or spot is seen clearly and depicted precisely. Even when his figures have grotesquely misshapen heads -- and pray that you're never famous enough to have a giant Drew Friedman head -- they're obviously who they are.

The only other caricaturist who worked so widely and was so perfect at capturing his subject's essence was Jack Davis -- but there was always a sunniness in Davis; he may have poked fun, but it was a gentle, friendly poke. When Friedman pokes, he uses a boathook. Friedman's entire career is based on his pitiless gaze: he sees famous people (politicians, actors, singers, comedians, random pop-culture figures) as if his drawing board was Dorian Gray's painting, and every sin or flaw was immediately visible.

Too Soon? is the first book to focus exclusively on Friedman's illustration work; he's been a major commercial artist for more than two decades -- after starting off doing his own comics [1], and then apparently realizing that he could get paid several times as much for the same effort by turning from comics panels to individual illustrations -- but this is the first retrospective of that illustration work. (The Fun Never Stops!, three years ago, did a similar fifteen-years-under-one cover look at Friedman's comics work.)

Too Soon? opens with a section of political cartoons, starting with Bill & Monica and running up to the present day, and some of Friedman's least flattering portraits -- and that's a very competitive category -- are here, from Bush and Gore down to who-was-that-again? types like Bill Lann Lee, Joschka Fischer, and Charlotte Beers. Even such a supposedly hagiographic portrait as a shot of Obama in full G. Washington mufti -- for the cover of The New Yorker on the eve of his inauguration -- shows a grumpy, scowling man in what must be an itchy wig, and it only gets less deferential from there. Just before the halfway point, Too Soon? switches over to "Showbiz," where the pictures -- some of them, at least -- are more loving and less gimlet-eyed. (Friedman, as always, has more affection for famous people who are either older than him -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin -- or are already pretty funny-looking in real life, like Bob Dylan, the Three Stooges, and Arnold Stang.)

Throughout it all, it's clear that Friedman is mostly working to editorial request -- with a bizarre "Four Horsemen" picture for Swedish Playboy or a jumbled "Oscar season" illustration for the Washington Post -- so Friedman's own sensibility (except in those inimitable faces) is often absent; these are pictures that someone was willing to pay him for, often on very short deadlines, and so Friedman worked quickly from some photo reference. The end results might be bizarre, but one has to assume the commissioning art directors expected that going in, and even aimed for that outcome. But Friedman's illustration work -- gleefully scabrous as it often is -- still comes second to his excellent comics, where his sensibility controls the entire package.

Still, there hasn't been a book like Too Soon? before, and it's been needed. So the answer to the question's title is: no, not at all. If anything, it's long overdue.

[1] Sometimes solo; sometimes from scripts by his brother Josh Alan Friedman.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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