Friday, July 27, 2012

Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman

Blechman has possibly the shakiest, most expressive and casual-seeming line of any cartoonist of the last century, which has followed him through an impressively varied career: an early graphic novel, 1953's The Juggler of Our Lady, long careers in advertising and animation, books for younger readers, editorial cartoons, and, almost as an afterthought, occasional other stories in comics form. Talking Lines collects most of those stories -- it doesn't include Juggler of Our Lady, and doesn't have a bibliography or curriculum vitae so that we can be sure it has everything else, but it seems pretty comprehensive.

Talking Lines is thus mostly a collection of occasional pieces, originally done for specific publications over the course of fifty years, from single-pagers for Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug in the late '50s to a two-pager about croissants and bagels for The New York Times in 2009. Those are all more or less good, and more or less dated -- Blechman in particular cartooned against the Vietnam War several times, which is nice to know now but not particularly enduring art -- since they're all short, and all caught up in telling their specific stories. Blechman organizes them in a way that seems chronological -- dates move forward for a while, but then drop back and then start to move forward again -- but clearly also has an element of thematic connection, or the order he rediscovered these pieces, or some other principle that Blechman never makes clear.

Eventually, after not quite two hundred pages (which goes very quickly; each piece has a two-page introductory spread, with a single-page illustration from the piece and a short introductory note on the facing page; and Blechman's work tends to have just a few small panels on the big white page to begin with), the previously published material runs out. There's a short unpublished piece to end the book, but, before that, comes "Georgie," which I have to assume was originally planned as a standalone book. (It's just over a hundred pages long, and I could easily see it as a small-format hardcover nestled by the cash register of a thousand stores, since it's about a man and his dog.)

"George," like most of Blechman's work here, is poignant with an underlying sweetness, but more concerned with an immediate emotional reaction than anything deeper or more thoughtful -- much like his Vietnam-era stories have the faint whiff of the protest march about them. Blechman has dabbled in sequential art over the years without spending a lot of time in that realm, so his work shows a lot of influences (Feiffer, Mad, various New Yorker cartoonists, perhaps especially Edward Koren) that haven't entirely coalesced into something purely Blechman, and that may be why "Georgie" never did turn into a book of its own; it stops more than it ends, and its focus is a little muddled -- it feels like a story that should have a moral, but doesn't.

Talking Lines is a well-designed and attractive collection of the work of someone who has never been a major print cartoonist, though his artwork has been more important in other areas. I expect the readers who will get the most out of it will be artists, budding or established, who want to study that wonderfully expressive, bumpy line of Blechman's, since this book presents his line in fine detail, reproduced well on mostly white pages.

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