Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City
By Peter Kuper, Introduction by Eric Drooker
PM Press, 208 pages, $29.95
This oversized, four-color 30-year compendium of comics, magazine illustrations, painting and sketchbook work by the artist best known for his “Spy vs Spy” pages in Mad Magazine, is stunning in its variety and vividness. “Chronicle” is evidently a play on words, because Kuper is looking at his Manhattan experience — ever since he moved from Cleveland in 1977 — from all sorts of angles, including geographical, aerial, animal, and, of course, human. It’s not always a pretty sight, that’s the price of admission to the real-life Greatest Show on Earth. The Mexican and French publishers of the volume, which preceded this version, must think so, too.
We don’t see the evidence here, but Kuper started as in comics by inking “Richie Rich,” and many of the pages of “Drawn to New York” might be understood as a depiction of the world that real-life Manhattan rich people would prefer not to see. Not that Kuper, a founder of the iconoclastic “World War 3 Illustrated,” is didactic. He takes in street violence, poverty, prostitutes, ecological and architectural crimes almost casually: How would you recognize modern New York without them? He also likes to be self-indulgent: the endangered species in the city is himself, threatened by some random or still unspecified source that makes 9/11 almost a relief in its specificity.
Poet, publisher and bookstore maven Lawrence Ferlinghetti is, at 94, arguably the most popular living versifier, or at least author of the single most popular book of poetry — the million-selling “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1957). It’s a distinction he carries lightly in Christopher Felver’s new documentary “Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.” The poet is rebelliously cheerful (in historic footage) while Allen Ginsberg is dour, accepting awards with surprise rather than vanity, buoyantly living his rebel life to the end.
Blame it on San Francisco, which properly occupies an oversize role in this charming film. Born in Yonkers as the son of an Italian father and a Sephardic mother, Ferlinghetti made it all the way to genteel Westchester the hard way.
When his father died six months after he was born and his mother was confined to an asylum, the boy was taken to France to live for his first years, until his aunt got a job in Bronxville and brought him there to grow up and go to school. Then came the University of North Carolina, where he began writing regularly (covering sports events for the school paper), then the Navy and back to France. And then, most decisively, to San Francisco. The bohemian city was waiting for him as he was for the city.
Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary
By Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen
Bloomsbury, 305pages, $30
No vernacular artist, and possibly no American humorist, had a bigger following during the 1940s and ‘50s than Al Capp did. That Capp had to be banned from campuses in the late 1960s after repeated sexual assault charges — and that he shifted from New Dealer to anti-peacenik rightwing Republican — almost obliterated the memory of the older satirist. This comprehensive biography recaptures the real thing.
The fiercely competitive Jewish artist was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in 1909, grew up poor, and worse, lost a leg in a streetcar accident at age 9. A quick study with a thirst for self-advancement, he faked credentials to get into art school, dropped out, and eventually headed to Manhattan with nothing but six dollars and a portfolio of drawings. Through talent and persistence he got into the comic strip racket as an assistant to Ham Fisher, the very quietly Jewish artist of “Joe Palooka.” Within a few years, Fisher and Caplin (by 1935, “Capp”) would become lifelong enemies.
But what an artist! Capp’s “Li’l Abner” was intended for a sophisticated adult audience that could appreciate social satire far beyond the mental level of “Blondie” and art less stylized and repetitive than “The Phantom” or “The Little King.” (The biographers do not say so, but those early years of “Li’l Abner” bring to mind the work of other Jewish comic strip artists like Milt Gross and Harry Hershfeld, not to mention Rube Goldberg.)
Corpse on the Imjin! And Other Stories
By Harvey Kurtzman, Edited by Gary Groth
Fantagraphics, 227 pages, $28.99
Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) is today remembered as the Bronx-born genius editor who invented Mad Magazine, the most pervasive satirical influence of the 20th century.
That single claim-to-fame is hard to avoid, but Kurtzman’s larger role in the history of comics, mainly but not solely as an editor, has long been a favorite subject of aficionados. Kurtzman, a worker in the vineyards (that is to say, cramped Manhattan studios) of comics production in the late 1940s, took charge of several comic lines at EC, a small company on the verge of bankruptcy. He shunned the cash-cow horror comics that made the other work of EC possible, and the Science Fiction comics that still give goose bumps to nostalgiacs. Mad Comics essentially created a genre by brilliantly ridiculing rampant consumerism. But Kurtzman’s military and war comics were every bit as provocative — and more shocking by far.
The “Two Fisted Tales” (1950-1955) and “Frontline Combat” series (1951-1954) remain the most realistic war comics ever conceived, non-ideological but essentially antiwar by virtue of their realism. They contrasted with the chest-thumping patriotic comics of the Second World War period, and they contrasted likewise with the war comics that remained a steady feature of the genre for several generations. Kurtzman’s editorial products, which he often wrote for other artists, are best remembered for their accuracy of detail, right down to military buttons. The comics actually drawn by Kurtzman may be best remembered for their heart-breaking character.
The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song
By Frank M. Young and David Lasky
Abrams, 192 pages, $24.95
With a recent issue of Time magazine declaring “The Carter Family” to be one of the seven best comics of 2012, artist David Lasky has ascended to the top tier of Jewish-American comic artists, an august group that includes Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, veteran Sharon Rudahl and newcomer Dan Asher, on top of a considerable list of others. This is not exactly a surprise. Lasky’s drawings, mostly in alternative comics anthologies, have been highly regarded by comics insiders for a decade or more. With this latest subject and the four-color precision of the result, Lasky, along with his collaborating script-writer (who also did the coloring) Frank Young, have hit a big number.
The “Midwest school” of comic art, appearing in daily papers in the 1920s and ‘30s, is now long gone. At that time Sidney Smith of “The Gumps” and Frank O. King of “Gasoline Alley” as much as invented “continuity,” moving away from four-panel gag to story lines about daily life and sometimes high adventure. Within this style, “Little Orphan Annie” achieved a peak readership among countless story-line, syndicated strips. “Joe Palooka” and “Li’l Abner” apart, they had non-Jewish creators and with few exceptions, were politically conservative.
“The Carter Family” might almost be accused of returning to Al Capp’s hillbilly vintage, except that Capp specialized in ridicule, while Lasky and Young have gone in the other direction, towards a documentary look at the lives of the 20th century’s most important country music innovators.
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