Saturday, January 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #20: Vip: The Mad World of Virgil Partch by Jonathan Barli

I'm torn here. I could lead off by talking about the substance or about the style. Both are a little off-putting, for very different reasons, but only one is deliberate.

That's enough of a distinction. We'll let that settle it.

Vip: The Mad World of Virgil Partch is a modern look at the work of the cartoonist who flourished most in the '40s through the early '60s, one of the quintessential ink-slingers of that era. His work is awfully sexist to a modern eye, full of men who frankly seem intent on rape -- but he's an inherently exaggerated cartoonist, so all of his people are doing ridiculously exaggerated things. Is that worth a pass? For me, it's unfortunate, but fits in with the whole mid-century madcap gestalt of Vip. His characters have lumpy, deformed bodies, too many fingers, and maniacal grins a lot of the time. That the men are often maniacal about sex is just par for the course, I guess.

Vip's artwork is inherent in the project: if you're celebrating it, you have to show it. Avoiding the men-and-women cartoons would be as ridiculous as avoiding the drinking-and-hangover ones. (Did I mention he was a quintessential mid-century cartoonist?)

What is less defensible is reproducing those cartoons as artifacts, on yellowing backgrounds. I've seen this in a lot of comics-world art-books over the past couple of decades, but I still hate it. Maybe author Jonathan Barli wanted to showcase Vip's lesser-known work, and there was no feasible way to make those clean and bright on the page -- it does look like he's showcasing roughs and unpublished work over final cartoons, so that's a plausible explanation. If so, he could have said that, somewhere in the book. As it is, I have to assume he wanted it to look like that, like an album of yellowing clippings from the collection of some super-fan.

This is deeply annoying for someone who wants an art book to showcase art and not the physical artifact of the artwork, but it's very common these days. You need to be able to overlook that, as well as the sexism, to appreciate Vip.

Luckily, there's a lot to appreciate here: Vip was a natural cartoonist, and his line is supple and cracking with energy in nearly all of his work. (Like so many others, he got softer and gentler as he got older and settled into the straitjacket of a newspaper strip.)

Barli tells the story of Virgil Partch's life with a solid emphasis on facts and places and high points. Nothing here sings, but it all works -- and Partch's life wasn't all that exciting to begin with.

At the time, it probably looked like Vip would be major, but he turned out to be very much of his time. He had the bad luck not to latch onto either of the major cartooning powerhouses that actually lasted throughout his career -- he was never right for The New Yorker, but I'm not sure why he didn't do more for Playboy. So he did a lot of work -- a lot of single panels, a lot of jobbing illustrations, a lot of quick books, and about two decades of that strip cartoon, Big George -- all of which was solid and professional and nearly all of which was apparently very funny at the time.

Who knew that getting plastered at any opportunity and trying to molest any women in range would turn out to be less funny to later generations? Truly, it is a puzzlement.

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