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Graphic Oddballs 

Funny ha-ha meets funny peculiar in Art Out of Time

Wednesday, May 31 2006

It’s been something of a banner year for the funny pages, with comics and “graphic novels” getting ever more (and increasingly positive) attention in the mainstream press, previously unthinkable film adaptations like Art School Confidential and V for Vendetta taking it in at the box office, and the Hammer/MOCA “Masters of American Comics” museum extravaganza lavishing extraordinary highbrow props on the medium and some of its greatest practitioners.

This surge in interest has also coincided with a torrent of remarkable publications. Over the last year or so we’ve seen definitive reissues of Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Frank King’s Walt and Skeezix; translations of Yoshiro Tatsumi’s haunting vintage sexual vignettesin The Push Man and David B’s autobiographical fits in Epileptic; two fine collections from the Acme Novelty Co.’s Chris Ware (the youngest of the Masters); Gary Panter’s Inferno, sketchbooks and online commission drawings; Charles Burns’ epic teen nightmare Black Hole; a long-overdue collection by conceptual-gag panelist Mark Newgarden; and the first monographic treatment of the fecund Providence scene in Paper Rad, B.J. and da Dogs.

These last two entries are also among the most gorgeously designed publications of the year, and it’s no coincidence — both were helmed by design wunderkind Dan Nadel, whose Picturebox company is responsible for those titles as well as the innovative Me a Mound catalog for painter Trenton Doyle Hancock and the great annual visual culture compendium known as The Ganzfeld, whose fourth issue features a gamut of underappreciated geniuses from Athanasius Kircher to Peter Blegvad and comic contributions from Panter, Marc Bell, Providence’s enigmatic C.F. and a host of other established and emerging underground talents. As if that weren’t enough for the next decade, he’s also working on publications on the work of Panter, Quebecois comix genius Julie Doucet, overlooked underground primitivist Rory Hayes and old-school comic-page tummeler Milt Gross.

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The most highly anticipated title in Nadel’s personal torrent, however, would have to be Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900–1969 — an encyclopedic anthology of eccentric artists that comes not from Picturebox but high-end art publisher Abrams. The 320-page volume bears no sign of Nadel’s design flair (probably because he didn’t design it), and even his textual contributions are sparse — leaving the bulk of pages to precious full-color reproductions of rare and idiosyncratic daily strips, Sunday pages and entire non-superhero comic-book stories that he chose and arranged in suitably achronological thematic clusters.

“My criteria,” says Nadel “were that the artists needed to have distinct, highly personal visions and be left out of the canon, in the broadest sense. That is, not just left out of the somewhat arbitrary group of 15 that appeared in L.A. but also removed from what is usually covered in the general history books. My feeling is that a lot of those books skew the history toward popular characters and more mainstream talents and away from anything that smacked of ‘art’ or ‘bad’ drawing.”

Probably the baddest drawer of the lot is the late Rory Hayes, the speed-addled enfant terrible of the late hippie era (the 1969 of the subtitle), whose nightmarish graphic visions were an obvious influence on latter-day Grand Guignol outsiders like Mark Beyer and Mike Diana. One of the highlights of the collection is Fletcher Hanks’ Stardust the Super Wizard, a jaw-dropping 1940 escapade whose obstinately awkward narrative and draftsmanship place its creator among the ranks of outsider mass-cultural geniuses like Ed Wood and Daniel Johnston. Yet many of the works included were made by consummate professionals, and fell by the wayside more because of the vagaries of the industry than any aberrant content.

Gene Deitch, for example, abandoned his pet project Terr’ble Thompson — the absurd historical adventures of a precocious time-travelling schoolboy — only because the demands of his animation gigs with UPA (Mister Magoo) and Terrytoons (XXX) outweighed the modest success of the strip. That said, many of the early-20th-century strips included by Nadel were enormously successful — Harry J. Tuthill’s dyspeptic Bungle Family appeared continuously for nearly three decades — and merely overlooked when the historians-come-lately started handing out the laurels.

Others were mere blips on the radar screen of comic history — the first selection offers a mere four episodes of Harry Grant Dart’s ultra-rare 1908 Sunday page The Explorigator, which rivals Little Nemo and Lyonel Feinenger’s Kin-Der-Kids for sheer exquisite design. Charles Forbell’s Naughty Pete, depicting the slapstick wages of youthful disobedience in a complex and innovative compositional language, lasted only 11 episodes in late 1913.

While Art Out of Time stands as an invaluable work of pop archaeology — as well as a manifesto of sorts — it is first and foremost a tremendous entertainment. Some stories, such as Dick Briefer’s loopy 1940s Frankenstein or Garrett Price’s serene Japanese-print-like White Boy, are visual jewels, while Nadel — revealing as sharp an ear for dialogue as his eye for brilliant drawing — devotes an entire section to works whose literary merits outweigh their graphic innovations. These include Tuthill, who Nadel deems “arguably the medium’s greatest pre-WWII prose fiction stylist,” as well as Boody Rogers’ breezily surreal Sparky Watts in the Kingdom of the Talking Bugs from 1948 and Harry Hershfield’s 1913 daily strip Dauntless Durham of the USA, a postmodern landmark from before Modernism had even taken hold.

Although Nadel clearly made an effort to let the work stand on its own merits, an appended section of artist biographies makes for compelling reading, combining wildy varied stories of fame, obscurity or ignominy with concise critical advocacy of these otherwise shadowy figures of pop-cultural history. With so much of Nadel’s activities in The Ganzfeld and Picturebox directed toward exhuming the unjustly neglected visual artists of the past century — and scores of anonymous oddballs still awaiting rediscovery — we can only hope that Art Out of Time is merely volume one in a long series of reclamation projects. But it’ll certainly do for now.

ART OUT OF TIME: UNKNOWN COMIC VISIONARIES, 1900–1969 | By DAN NADEL | Abrams | 320 pages | $40 hardcover

  • Funny ha-ha meets funny peculiar in Art Out of Time

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