Opus 78:

Opus 78: Line King Books and Comic Book Reviews (January 16). Al Hirschfeld, who, at the age of 99, is still drawing his famously decorative visions of Broadway productions and theatrical personages for the New York Times, has recently seen two exhibitions of his work mounted-one in New York, the other in Beverly Hills. Both are preserved in elegant catalogues from Abrams, Hirschfeld's New York (96 9x10" pages, 103 illustrations, including 11 plates in full color; paperback, $15.95) and, a companion book of exactly the same dimensions and price, Hirschfeld's Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld, with 135 illustrations (45 plates in full color). Together, this brace of books, while not exactly giving us Hirschfeld in full, gives us plenty about the artist that we may not have known before (or may not have been as mindful of).

The New York book, for instance, shows us Hirschfeld in the thirties celebrating the city-its milieu, its speakeasies and neighborhoods, and its thronging streets-as well as its theater. While his caricatures are amply displayed, the people whose pictures appear here are those most closely associated with New York or with films or plays about New York (Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, say, or in The Prisoner of Second Avenue). Clare Bell annotates the artwork with an insightful and informative 13-page introduction complete with instructive illustrations.

David Leopold does the same duty for the Hollywood book in 16 pages. I've collected Hirschfeld since I was but a mere broth of a boy (that was a long time ago, kimo sabe) and thought I knew most of what you need to know about him, but Leopold's introduction goes into Hirschfeld's career in the film industry in much greater depth than anything I've seen before. I hadn't realized, for example, that in 1927 he signed a contract with MGM to do promotional drawings at $15,000 a year, a relationship that lasted 30 years.

Leopold traces Hirschfeld's connection with Hollywood, beginning as an errand boy for Goldwyn Pictures Publicity Department in 1920 at the age of 17. He soon was doing artwork rather than running errands.

In those days before the instant communication of tv, movie theaters decided which films to book for the coming year by looking at lavishly illustrated promotion books that studio salesmen took around the country. Since none of the films had yet been made, everything about a given film might change before it was actually completed (if it ever was), so the artists who provided the illustrations had to be as unspecific as they could be while, at the same time, lauding the imagined virtues of the proposed film. Said Hirschfeld: "The idea was to communicate the kind of film to the viewer, to make it interesting and exciting."

Hirschfeld, who was then working out of his studio in New York (located where the Museum of Modern Art stands today), never lived or worked in Hollywood: in the 1920s, the film industry had as much presence in New York as it had in Los Angeles. He hired several other artists, and together, they cranked out stunning full-color posters and the like for the promotion books-and for billboards and other display venues.

The blossoming of the American film industry changed the nature of caricature. Until roughly the 1920s, caricature was almost exclusively the weapon of the political cartoonist, and its function was to ridicule the person caricatured. But as caricaturists started producing work for motion picture studios and theatrical ventures, the role of caricature was to venerate celebrity rather than to destroy it. The landscape was filled with highly skilled caricaturists. Today, with Hirschfeld almost the only notable practitioner of this speciality still alive and working, we have forgotten that he learned from artists who were more than his equals- Miguel Covarrubias (with whom Hirschfeld shared a studio for a time), Al Frueh, Will Cotton, Paul Garreto, and others.

Leopold touches upon the other artists whose styles influenced Hirschfeld, including John Held, Jr., whose cue-ball-headed shebas with their spindly legs and short skirts and boyfriends (sheiks) with hip flasks defined the Jazz Age as well as the Flapper. The two artists met in 1927 at MGM advertising department; Hirschfeld admired Held's spidery-thin linework and strategically placed solid blacks. By then, Held was among the most famous people of the time. Hirschfeld (in another of my sources) tells about watching his friend open his morning mail-20 or 30 envelopes, each containing hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in cash, payment in advance for drawings requested by the sender. Held's fame nearly destroyed him. Attempting to meet the demand for his drawings and to sustain the lifestyle his wife had become accustomed to, he lived at the drawingboard and had virtually no other being. He once warned Hirschfeld: "Don't, for God's sake, ever earn more than you need to live on. Try not to be too successful." But Hirschfeld became successful. He did all but a couple of the posters for the original 1939 campaign for The Wizard of Oz. His caricatures of the Marx Brothers defined their look. After his posters for their 1935 movie, A Night at the Opera, all other caricatures of the zany trio looked like Hirschfeld's. Even the MGM make-up crew joined in, trying, in their second movie, A Day at the Races, to make the brothers look like Hirschfeld's drawings with Groucho's hair teased to resemble the two triangles Hirschfeld gave him in his caricature. The Marx Brothers phenomenon was celebrity caricature in microcosm: actors in those years were "glandular actors," Hirschfeld said: "Every gesture is big and sweeping, and they're great to draw." They were larger than life, hugely theatrical personalities, and so, logically, they looked like their caricatures.

The New York book is likewise brimming with informative text and pix. For example, here are a couple of the "photo-doodles" Hirschfeld did for Life in 1937. With a few strokes of his brush, he transforms a photograph of Jimmy Durante into Al Smith, onetime governor of New York. Similarly, he turns Harold Ross, founding editor of the New Yorker, into Joseph Stalin. He also transformed Mary Pickford into Adolf Hitler, but the only one of these targets to take offense was Ross. Which may explain why Hirschfeld, so much a New Yorker that the city's Landmarks Commission dubbed him a Living Landmark in 1996 and therefore a perfect cartoonist for the magazine, was banished from its pages.

Both books are laced with pages of color work, including some watercolors that weren't, strictly speaking, done as theatrical caricatures. Hirschfeld's art is more copiously represented in several of the many collections of his work, but these two tomes, by focusing so narrowly on specific aspects of his career, enrich our understanding of the artist and heighten our appreciation of his work. And much of the work in Hirschfeld's Hollywood isn't included in even Hirschfeld On Line, the book in which Hirschfeld played a perhaps larger role than usual, writing captions for many of the drawings and supplying photographs he had taken himself. Even if you own all the other Hirschfeld collections, you should stack these on the shelf, too.

PITHY PRONOUNCEMENTS. Catwoman No. 2-more good, clean and crisp visual storytelling from Darwyn Cooke, who works in the animated style but with a slightly more ragged line (more feathering but, still, not much) ... And with AC's new title, TV Western, the first issue of which is out, we meet Alex Toth drawing two Range Rider stories, both of which he supplied the tints for; another treat ... Some Trouble of a Serrious [sic] Nature No. 1 is a shaggy-dog story, but it's the misleading cover, with its toothsome pin-up, that bugs me; and the art inside, mostly of male hillbillies and airplanes, is likewise perfunctory, surviving mostly by the application of computer color rather than any linear dexterity ... More computer-assisted art in Shades of Blue, which is now up to No. 4 in a tedious tale of a fiendish highschool substitute teacher with superpowers terrifying her students who resolve to fight back; the fat lines are often pleasing to the eye, but the excess of gray tones gets a little tiresome ... The first issue of Justice League Adventures has a nifty cover by Bruce Timm with Alex Ross colors, but the interior art, in the familiar animated style, has deteriorated from the first forays into this realm when Ty Templeton drew them; Templeton's pages had a design quality, but these are merely pages of panels filled with simple line drawings without any other distinction. Too bad.

Sadly, Grass Green, one of fandom's bulwarks in the formative years, has lung cancer. Grass claims the prognosis is good for recovery, but he doesn't have medical insurance, and the bills are, as you must know, whopping. TwoMorrows, through the good offices of Billy Schelly, will be publishing Green's 90-page Hunter Cat in May with all profits to go to Grass. You can help. And you'll enjoy Grass's accomplished cartooning as a bonus.

The current issue of Sketch magazine, No. 12, carries a cover story and long interview with Frank Cho, wherein the affable Cho discusses his reasons for Liberty Meadows' departure from syndication (he's tired of fighting the censoring of his editors and the apparent indifference of newspapers and wants to devote time and energy to his new daughter, Emily) and his plans for the future. Lots of good Cho artwork, and, on page 4, various of the magazine's staff and contributors appear in assorted monkey guises, a tribute, no doubt, to Cho, whose favorite alter ego in the strip is a chimp.

One of the best things about DC's reprinting of all eleven of the 1958-59 Green Arrow tales drawn by Jack Kirby is the introduction by Mark Evanier. Therein we learn that Roz Kirby did the preliminary inking on all the stories. "She would trace his pencil work with a static penline; [and then Jack] would take a brush, put in all the shadows and bold areas and, where necessary, heavy-up the lines she'd laid down." Further: "Jack hated inking and only did it because he needed the money. After departing DC this time [c. 1960?], he almost never inked his own work again." Looking at the GA artwork, it's easy to see how a good inker can make a difference. No disrespect to Roz, but she wasn't that adept at inking. Her lines are all of a uniform thinness, and although Jack came through with a brush later to strengthen certain lines and add shadow, he didn't do that as much as a good inker would by just inking the pencils the first time. A deft brush handler would vary line thickness as he went, adding volume and dimension to the art.

The most recent issue of the Jack Kirby Collector (No. 9 from TwoMorrows) includes an interview with Stan Lee conducted by Jon Cooke on October 11, 2001. They talk about Lee's collaboration with Kirby, and Lee remarks that "it's very unfortunate that some people think he did half the work and I took all the credit [in creating the Marvel Universe]. That just isn't so. Every time I was interviewed, I would always say how great Jack was. Very often, the interviewers just left that out." And then, to prove Lee's point, comes a Sidebar reprinting a portion of an interview that was done for Daily Variety, a Hollywood trade publication, in which, just as he averred, Lee gives Kirby and Steve Ditko credit as "co-creators" of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk. "Jack is a very creative person," Lee says. "He's one of the best, most imaginative people I know, and it was wonderful working with him." This was in the mid-1980s. To Cooke, Lee said: "Jack was one of the greatest. He was one of the most honest, one of the most talented, one of the most hard-working and one of the most dependable guys in comics. If you'd say to him you needed a job by such-and-such a date, it was there. He was never late. His work was always first-rate. He was all that anybody said he was, and he was also a hell of a nice guy." The article also prints copies of his typed plot outline for the first two chapters of the Fantastic Four epic. Says Lee: "In the beginning, I'd give him written-out plots, like the outline for the first Fantastic Four. After a while, I would just tell him what I thought the story ought to be. Then after a while, I would just give him a few words. He could practically do the whole thing by himself, y'know?" And in the Sidebar from the Daily Variety, Lee says that they all fell into the celebrated Marvel Method almost by accident as a way of keeping the artists busy while he was scripting. Nice job, Jon and Deuce.

And if you're looking for an encyclopedic explanation of Kirby's role in the creation of the comic book genre and industry, pick up a copy of my book, The Art of the Comic Book (which you can learn more about by clicking here).

Alan Moore's Tom Strong no. 15 is out, at last; it's too long between issues, tovarich. But the story herein is a bit better than the highly theoretical expository stuff in the Terrific Tales venture. Still, sf leaves me a little cold. On the cover, Tom yells out, "Stop him! If the salamander reaches the lava, he'll become invincible!" Should we believe this? Maybe. But even if we do, we can be sure that ol' Tom will come up with some way of 'vincing the salamander, invincible or no. That's the way of sf: make up difficulties, and then make up solutions-neither of which we, the hapless readers, have ever heard of. The maneuver destroys suspense: we can scarcely fear for the safety or well-being of the hero if our repeatedly aroused suspicion is that, no matter what the menace-no matter how gigantic or lethal-the hero will, at the last minute, be blessed with a new scientific power that will deflate or confound the threat. Much of the super-powered universe suffers from this excess. The heroes' powers seem limitless, and, hence, nothing can much threaten them.

Stan Lee's Just Image Justice League effort, with a plot assist from Michael Uslan and art by Jerry Ordway, is of-a-piece with the others in this series-plots and origins entangled excessively by the demands of sf-clued readers who would not accept simple origins anymore. In this mode, the characters are condemned to babbling continuously in order to explain the science of their actions or that of the powers of their foes. This tendency to loquaciousness is amplified in team-up books because more characters need to explain themselves; and in group books, like this one, with five protagonists, the babble seems endless. This time, we at last meet the villain, Dominic Darrk, who has lurked in the corners of the earlier titles, but the supernatural manifestations in every page wear me out. It's the Tom Strong Syndrome all over again. But Stan manages to relieve the tedium with flashes of humor that waft a refreshing zephyr of self-deprecation through the enterprise. Lois Lane, intrepid reporter, shows up at the end of the combat, and, spying a somewhat disheveled Superman, blurts out: "Superman! Comb your hair! You're going to be on the 11 o'clock news!" Those of us who've been on the bleachers for a couple generations now, watching all these antics, used to wonder why Superman's hair was always slightly mussed (that tell-tale lock of hair loose over his forehead) while Clark Kent never turned a hair at all. Apart from whatever else Lois' remark tells us (about Lois, for instance), she also conjures up a fondly recalled quirk. Thanks, Stan.

The first in the 4-issue series of Groo: Death and Taxes is out. The usual superlative performance by all hands- Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth, and Stan Sakai. The premise: Groo vows to give up killing, and that, in the natural way peculiar to Groo's universe, wreaks havoc on civilization, which seems to subsist largely on the income to be derived from selling coffins to the surviving relatives of Groo's victims or by selling food and whatnots to soldiers hired to combat Groo. But this issue includes another treat, a Yuletide rhyme from Evanier that begins, "'Twas the night before deadline and those who make Groo / Were getting their work done, except you-know-who...." Another keeper.

A benchmark on another weekend's reading recently was Batman: The 10-Cent Adventure, no. 1. Greg Rucka does a great job setting forth a concept that is fresh to me (although I admit I don't keep up on every nuance of the DC Universe)-namely, the relationship between Batman and a female bodyguard who discovers that Bruce Wayne, her ostensible client, is actually the Cowled Crusader. And Rick Burchett turns in inventive layouts and compositions-in short, engaging storytelling-crisply inked by Klaus Janson.

Interviewed recently at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Rucka, who made his reputation as the author of detective (or crime) novels featuring a professional bodyguard named Atticus Kodiak, said that he views writing for comics as just another writing assignment-like screenplays, short stories, novels, etc. But comics, he says, offer him "the opportunity to tell different stories in different ways. Comics, as a medium, are a beautiful balancing act between words, image and imagination and, as a result, may be the only means for telling certain kinds of stories. In general, I try to picture all of my comics work visually as I write, meaning I'll pace it as I imagine it'll work on the page."

Rucka wrote the critically acclaimed Whiteout last year, followed by Melt. Both for Oni Press. His current effort for Oni takes a character from Whiteout, Lily Sharpe aka Tara Chace, and launches her in her own series, Queen and Country.

Finally, here's Daniel Clowes back behind Eightball, the comic book that spawned such epics as the movie Ghost World and the graphic novel David Boring. The revived comic book, No. 22, at first appears to be a collection of 29 separate stories, but by page 10, with the second "story" about kids done in a style evocative of John Stanley's Little Lulu, we realize that the book that one of the kids loans to another on page 3 is a "True Story" comic book that is reproduced on page 4 about the infamous Leopold and Loeb kidnaping of Bobbie Franks. From that moment on, we look for connections between the seemingly separate stories. And sometimes, we find them. Places where, in a Joycean manner, the daily life of one character crosses that of another. Only rarely do the characters actually impinge upon each other; but they are all related by the pervasive aura in which Clowes steeps his work-a sense of alienation, even menace, under a gloomy cloud of vague dread.

One of the continuities weaving its way through the series is about a kid named David Goldberg who, after an initial appearance, seems to disappear. With the allusive Leopold and Loeb case shadowed in the pattern, we readily accept the possibility that young David has been kidnaped and killed. But, no, his erstwhile murderer, another kid, was only kidding. "You really thought I killed him? Man, no offense, but what a chump!"

Despite the surface complexity and seeming connectedness, this book remains a collection of 29 separate pieces, some of which revisit the characters in others. Each of the pieces in this tapestry deals with the personality of one of the characters, and it is in characterization, as usual, that Clowes excels. (Provided, that is, that the characters are all sad and ineffectual.)

This issue is in full color, and Clowes makes as inventive a use of color as he does of the weaver's craft. The stories about Little Lulu kids, for instance, appear on pages that are yellowed with age, like decades-old newsprint comic book pages. I'm glad I picked this one up: until now, I'd dipped into Clowes only occasionally and failed to see the attraction. Now I do.

Stay 'tooned.

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