Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980

Posted by on April 3rd, 2010 at 1:03 PM

Kent reviews the new companion volume to Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969.

Dan Nadel, ed. Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980. Abrams, 2010. 304 pp. $40 hardcover. 350 full-color illustrations. ISBN 978-0-8109-8824-8.

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Art Out of Time (2005) was one of those rare books that not only received glowing reviews but helped shift the larger conversation. In recovering the work of over two dozen neglected cartoonists, the book made an ambitious case for rethinking what we mean by “good comics.” Rather than treating the material as camp, or trying to squeeze folks like Walter Quermann, Gustave Verbeek, Charles Forbell, Jack Mendelsohn, and Dick Briefer into an existing canon, editor Dan Nadel sagely proposed we consider how specific comics make us feel. In effect, Art Out of Time offered a dionysian rebuke to the apollonians who write and teach on comics, as well as oversee the better comics publishers. It was, well, timely.

Dan Nadel is still on his dionysian kick, as anyone familiar with the PictureBox catalogue can tell you. As Nadel says in the introduction to his latest project, Art in Time, he has a taste for material that is reminiscent “of the joyous searching of Beat artist and publisher Wallace Berman or the Grateful Dead band…a groping forward for what’s just beyond one’s reach.” He admits to being “immersed in a certain kind of comic making that has emerged in the new millennium, primarily by artists from Providence, Rhode Island. These comics are genre-defying, drawing-based and even ecstatic – they’re looking for psychic and physical release on paper.” What stitches his enthusiasms together is his interest in “the story of the slow march toward a more open and inclusive understanding of what makes a compelling comic.”

It seems unlikely Art in Time will enjoy the same kind of cultural impact as its older sibling. Its approach is not quite as groundbreaking, and the proliferation of comics anthologies and histories has made it harder for this kind of title to stand out. But it is nevertheless stuffed with entertaining comics and contains some real gems. Furthermore, the packaging is first-class. Abrams books tend to be handsome and this volume is no exception. Amazon already sells it at a 34% discount but a paperback version would be helpful.

Art in Time features the work of fourteen midcentury/postwar cartoonists, with a focus on adventure stories of various types, including Western, science fiction, superhero, detective and horror. Two of the featured cartoonists, John Stanley (Little Lulu) and Bill Everett (Sub-Mariner), are remembered for their contributions to other genres, while Michael McMillan, Willy Mendes, Sharon Rudahl and John Thompson were part of the underground comics scene. The remainder – Pat Boyette, Matt Fox, Sam J. Glanzman, Harry Lucey, Jesse Marsh, Mort Meskin, Pete Morisi and H.G. Peter – were capable, work-for-hire cartoonists who mainly plied their craft for second or third-tier publishers. The underground stories are in black-and-white, while the others, originally aimed at the newsstand market, are in color.

Nadel’s decision to place trippy sixties types like Rudahl and McMillan alongside mass market entertainers like Meskin and Glanzman is, at the very least, unconventional. A more cautious editor would have given the underground cartoonists their own section, or included them in a separate anthology. Some of the resultant juxtapositions are more successful than others. The transition from John Thompson to Pat Boyette helps bring out the strangeness in Boyette’s compositions, while the segue from Sharon Rudahl to Mort Meskin is merely abrupt. Nadel is no more interested in celebrating “the sixties” than he is in rehabilitating the reputation of “the fifties.” He’s concerned with specifics – “the immersive, intoxicating exploration of comic book worlds on paper.”

To be honest, I find Nadel’s indifference to the straight/hippie, fifties/sixties demarcation a little unnerving. While the stories in this collection can all be described as “adventure stories,” the underground artists enjoy such a distinctive relationship to narrative, genre and audience that their inclusion in a volume that is otherwise dominated by newsstand comics flags all sorts of questions. Again, Nadel’s interest is in the impressions and sensations that comics can sometimes provoke rather than the ideas they typify or the conditions they illuminate. To some extent his aestheticism is admirable. But his latest book is not really the place to look for some sort of coherent argument about what actually went down in the worlds of art and commerce between the early 1940s and the late 1970s.

Of the commercial artists, I was especially impressed by H.G. Peter (“Man O’Metal”), Sam J. Glanzman (“Kona”) and of course Pat Boyette (“Children of Doom”). John Stanley’s pages are stunning, as was his ability to adapt to radically different genres. Bill Everett was not operating at quite the same level, but he had a knack for rendering faces, ocean swells and rainfall. I was intrigued by the story of Matt Fox (“I Was a Vampire”), who drew for Atlas in the 1950s and inked for Marvel in the early 1960s. His pages are stagey, eccentric and a bit melodramatic, yet they pull the reader into the story. As Nadel points out, Fox “drew comics like they were carved out of stone. Each panel of his claustrophobic pages is crammed with details made of multiple discreet pen marks…There’s no grace here, but there is an unmistakable power.” This strikes me as exactly right.

While the introduction is terse in places (he might have named a few of those Providence cartoonists, for example), the pieces on the individual artists are generally spot on. Nadel obviously loves this material. He is particularly good at identifying the specific strengths that each of his favored cartoonists brings to the task at hand. And in several cases he makes skillful use of his recent correspondence with individual artists in writing about their work.

In a couple of places his fannish enthusiasm gets the better of him. Does it make sense to refer to Sharon Rudahl’s “The Adventures of Crystal Night” as her “masterpiece”? Is it really the case that “only years later, in the work of Gilbert Hernandez, does one find such an assured sense of place and space in comics” as in the Western comics of Jesse Marsh? On the other hand, he has a point when he finds that Mort Meskin’s “brushy inking has a casual quality to it; whether through necessary haste or stylistic choice, the well-placed, offhand strokes add up to compelling marks.” And, yes, “visualizing the depths of the sea or the power of flowing water seemed to bring out [Bill] Everett’s maximalist, visionary tendencies.”

Visionary tendencies is Nadel’s raison d’etre, his Archimedean point. Art in Time is gorgeous, but it’s also a polemic. It’s not about politics, semiotics or cultural history. It’s about getting your freak on.

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One Response to “Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980

  1. […] Kent Worcester reviews Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980, which is the sort of book that would make me stay up nights. […]