Worthy of His Hire

Posted by on November 15th, 2010 at 11:50 PM

Too Soon?, Drew Friedman’s collection of 16 years of magazine illustration work, is framed in a way that is strangely out of date.  The way it’s packaged and presented you would expect a parade of unbridled savagery.  This impression is a holdover from the earlier part of his career, the hallmark of which is an insensitivity that depends on a young man’s indifference to the suffering of others.  At this point of his career the hallmark of his most personal work is affection.  His most representative current work, Old Jewish Comedians, is an examination of what happens to funny faces as they age.  But then, even his most savage work tends for the most part to portray personalities he likes.  While the subjects of Too Soon? are generally not people he has any particular affection for, neither does he seem to have any great animus against them.  This is not caricature in the tradition of Daumier or David Levine.  You will get no insight into the character of his subjects.  (Friedman freely admits that he sometimes has no idea of who his subjects are.)  Rather they are in the tradition of Al Hirschfeld (an avowed model), a series of humorous drawings of famous persons in the cartoonist’s manner.  And if the truth were told, the humor tends to lean a lot on the ubiquitous fairground caricaturist’s device of putting a large head on a small body.

In Too Soon? Friedman comes off less as a satirist than the court painter of the contemporary ruling class.  To be sure, the dominant tone is of irreverence rather than the court painter’s flattery, but this fits into the agenda of the contemporary ruling class just as well.  Whether they be politician or entertainer, the contemporary ruling class does not want to put on airs and they want to be seen as good sports.  His stuff is all off-speed, and his beanballs are bean bags.  It’s indicative that one of the few celebrity subjects who takes serious offense to Friedman’s portraits is Woody Allen, who wants to be thought of a serious person.  It’s further indicative that the Weekly Standard hires him to do spot illustrations of conservative politicians.  Most indicative of all is the way he’s become such a favorite of Entertainment Weekly.  The readership of a magazine like Entertainment Weekly ultimately wants to have its tastes flattered.  Therefore the magazine adopts a skeptical and irreverent tone without really criticizing popular taste very harshly.  This is something that Friedman can deliver.  Take the following:

The theme (selected by the editor) was celebrities in fairy tale settings.  Whether the choice to portray Robert De Niro as the Mad Hatter is the editor’s as well is not clear from the caption, but I’m guessing it was.  Is there anything in this cartoon that De Niro’s publicist could conceivably object to?  Could you possibly get the impression from it for instance that De Niro has been wasting his early promise?  I don’t see how.  He looks more jocular than mad.  Or take the portrait of Bill Cosby.  Here you see the Cosby simper, presented with admirable fidelity, revealing nothing about the inner man than the comedian himself would care to reveal, not that Friedman would be in any better position to know the inner man than anyone else – America’s Grandpa to the life, and about as savaged as you might be by Hello Kitty.  I would say though that the celebrity portion is the more effective part of the book, if only because one expects less from celebrity caricature.  Friedman gives us a gallery of the likenesses of the trivial personalities of a trivial time, with no more harm in them then there is substance, and more of a danger to themselves than others.  Too soon?  If he’d waited a couple of more years it would be too late.

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One Response to “Worthy of His Hire”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    This is a great review. Thanks for writing it, R.