Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #329: The World of George Price

Note: I've once again gotten confused in my counting, and hit both 264 and 267 twice -- must have been a bad week. So the count skips 327 and 328 to get back to the correct number. The Management regrets the inconvenience.

I am half-convinced that the New Yorker, among its many other obscure and abstruse rules, has written down somewhere a dictum to the effect that "the Magazine must always have a staff cartoonist with the Christian name George, whose work draws in large part on the martial foibles and physical flotsam of the working classes." How else to explain how George Price was followed by George Booth? (With a decade or so of overlap -- a blisteringly quick apprenticeship for such a hidebound operation as the New Yorker.)

I'm more familiar with the work of Booth, who still cartoons for the magazine -- I covered a mid-eighties career retrospective just a couple of weeks ago -- but Price did much the same thing, in his own idiom, for more than sixty years. And Price's mature style is particularly striking, all angles and carefully defined spaces through what looks like one continuous precise line.

The World of George Price is a 1988 collection of the best of Price's work -- as the subtitle says, it celebrates fifty-five years of his cartoons, mostly for the New Yorker, where he first placed work in 1931. Unfortunately, whoever edited this -- Peter Weed or one of his minions at Beaufort Books -- didn't place the cartoons in chronological or any other clear order. This is doubly unfortunate because Price had three very distinct art styles over the course of his life, and the subject matter of his drawings also saw some evolution over his long tenure.

First up was a rounded, more illustrative line, which he debuted with in 1931 -- though his faces were always distinct, with incomplete ovals containing the eyes. The middle years saw his line simplify and get a lot straighter, and the addition of large areas of gray to define spaces. And then the gray receded as the line got even more precise and straight. (This is my supposition, which may be wrong -- again, the book doesn't date any of its cartoons.

Despite what I said up top, Price didn't have Booth's mania for a few standard cartoon set-ups: this collection ranges broadly, with lots of squabbling couples, quizzical moments in offices and other workplaces, and plenty of wordplay. Price came from the prime era of the New Yorker (and of the gag cartoon), and his work is always clearly funny, rarely haring off into oddity the way Booth did later. But Price's work does have a lot of those couples in very closely observed rooms, fully of nick-nacks and tchotchkes and glaring at each other -- you can clearly see the ground that Booth would obsessively dig into and make his own in the older cartoonist's work.

George Price's work has a remarkable breadth of art style and material -- perhaps less surprising when you consider again that this book collects work from more than half a century -- and he also serves as a transitional figure, from the New Yorker of Arno and Hokinson to the archer cartoons of the '80s and afterward. I find him dependably funny, if less quirky than an artist like Booth or Bruce Eric Kaplan -- and that more general humor probably means he comes across as funny to more people. Price isn't much talked about these days when great cartoonists are mentioned, which is a shame: his art was amazing three different ways, and his punchlines were inventive and smartly Zerigeist-y.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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