PRINT Summer 2014


Splash panel from Basil Wolverton’s Eye of Doom. From Mystic, no. 6 (Marvel, 1952).

ART SPIEGELMAN occupies a singular position in the world of comics, renowned not only for his own groundbreaking work—Raw magazine and Maus hardly need introduction—but also for his encyclopedic knowledge and ardent championing of the medium. Artforum invited the legendary cartoonist to curate an eclectic selection of comics—from the Bronze Age to 1986—and to discuss each panel’s visual charge and historical significance.

In ordinary comic books, there are pictures within
pictures for children who know how to look.

—Dr. Fredric Wertham in his 1954 diatribe on the
dangers of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent

THE FUTURE OF COMICS IS IN ITS PAST. I dumpster dive through the mass-produced comic art of the twentieth century, looking for new eyeball kicks—for the idiosyncratic and genuinely personal that’s hidden among the anonymous hack work. Basil Wolverton’s all-seeing Eye of Doom will absorb and eat you unless you see it before it sees you. Looked at blindly, Matt Fox’s splash panel for The Hand of Glory may only reveal an upraised hand holding some kind of gun. A closer look brings to light a hand holding another hand holding what can only be described as a dick on fire!—one of the greatest masturbatory phallic symbols this side of Salvador Dalí.

Are Wolverton and Fox “primitive” artists? Can one talk about outsider artists in a medium that was, till yesterday, itself dismissed as marginal? Their work leaps out and rescues you from a sea of anonymous drawing.

Can one see the invisible hidden in plain sight? In one box in the second issue of the short-lived Detective Eye, one sees nothing—a blank bit of newsprint surrounded by off-register color that shows what an “Invisobox” gadget can do. Invisibility is typically indicated by a radiating blorp of lines with a speech balloon aimed at its center. (Balloons and sound effects, motion and time elapsing in the spaces between the panels—comics were born to show you the invisible!) Is that mysterious panel the sign of an ingenious artist at work, a colorist’s error, or a printing mistake? The indifferent drawing in this story is by a teenaged Stan Drake, who would grow up to become the highly competent journeyman illustrator of The Heart of Juliet Jones, a slick soap opera strip done in the deadly “naturalistic” style that mostly makes my eyes glass over. My eye stopped on the background, though: an abstract symphony of calligraphic strokes and blots indicating the motion of a wheelchair and tempestuous atmospheric conditions. An artist’s temperament flashes into view before Drake ends up drawing Blondie every day for the last dozen years of his life.

The arc of a cartoonist’s style often offers more thrills than the stories in his strips. Frederick Burr Opper created Happy Hooligan, a proto-Chaplinesque tramp, at the dawn of the Sunday funnies. Opper was already a mature and influential political cartoonist when Hearst hired him. The draftsmanship for Opper’s definitive comic strips was cheerfully and skillfully de-skilled. By the end of his long working life, the strips looked like they had been drawn blindfolded (see page 311). They had a stripped-down bluntness that might allow them to seem related to the sublimely unskilled Eugene Teal’s Frogs (see page 308) but was probably the result of a lifetime of cartooning expertise distilled through badly failing eyesight.

Back cover of L’Oeil de la Police (The Eye of the Police), 1908–14. Weekly publication.


THE BLUEPRINT EXPRESSIONISM of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy brought the violence of the Prohibition era’s front pages into the comics section. Gould’s precisely composed panels veered closer to abstraction and delirium over the years. Hidden in plain sight, the widely syndicated law-and-order strip went off into cloud-cuckoo land, with a Moon Maid and flying garbage cans steered with crutches, with pictures that went one way and words that went another.

L’Oeil de la Police stares back at you from behind the faits divers of a belle epoque tabloid, but all the eye can see is crime and violent death.

Cover of Shigeru Sugiura’s Mister Robot, ca. 1950.


IN THE 1980S, some avant-garde Japanese manga artists dubbed the look they aspired to “heta-uma” (translating as “unskilled-skillful”). Their patron saint was Shigeru Sugiura (1908–2000), whose popular postwar wacko manga evolved into surreal culture mash-ups, often featuring Clint Eastwood and crude Jack Kirby swipes. The twisted American heta-uma family tree includes the convulsively beautiful work of Wolverton (our Sugiura), the disturbed and disturbing Fletcher Hanks (our René Magritte, but a sociopath), and Rory Hayes (the underground comix artist who made the world safe for all unskilled DIY obsessive-compulsives who followed). Boody Rogers was precariously balanced somewhere on the heta-uma hyphen. His affable weirdness came from skillful cartooning combined with an uncanny lack of skill in locating the boundaries of good taste. Dick Briefer’s art lies on the more uma end of the ultraviolet spectrum. His deeply frightening Frankenstein—was there ever an outsider further out than Frankenstein?—later morphed into a civilized and jazzily drawn sweetheart who seemed to live in the same neighborhood as the Addams family but reverted to the gothic when horror comics came into vogue and terrified Dr. Fredric Wertham, our epigraph’s author.

Art Young, Capitalism. From The Masses, ca. 1915.


CARTOONING has had many out-liers, not just “primitives.” (The prehistoric artist who represented movement on a clay bowl three thousand years ago wasn’t primitive, was he?) I hereby christen them uma-uma artists: singularly consummate creators who float far above the ocean of mediocrity. Art Young, for example, was a highly gifted artist but a political outlier tried for treason during World War I for his pacifist drawings in The Masses (see overleaf); Frank King was one of the most consummate of the consummate. In one Gasoline Alley daily he offers a miracle for those who know how to look. . . .

Frank King, Gasoline Alley, August 25, 1925. Original art for daily strip, Chicago Tribune Syndicate.


UNLIKE STAN DRAKE’S “INVISO-BOX” that reveals raw newsprint, Frank King’s india ink inhabits the blank paper, giving form to the void by draping it with dappled shadows in the moonlight so feelings can be seen.

Art Spiegelman is a cartoonist. His traveling retrospective will make its last stop at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Dec. 20, 2014–Mar. 14, 2015). It is accompanied by his most recent book, Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps (Drawn and Quarterly, 2013).