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Category Archives: Review

Book Review: Jackie Ormes

Jackie Ormes book coverI love it when a book exposes me to an event or person that I’d previously known nothing of. This happened recently when a friend sent along an email linking to an article on Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist. This book grew out of author Nancy Goldstein’s interest in a doll modeled after one of Ormes’ comic characters. What emerged from that little pique is this multifaceted portrait of a vivacious lady who channeled the excitement of mid-20th century politics and social issues into her own jazzy drawings.

Actually, cartooning made up only part of Ormes’ life story — between 1937 and 1956, she had a hand in four different comic strips in between stints as a reporter, community volunteer and social hostess on the Chicago scene. Her best-remembered comic was Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger, a single panel weekly which ran in the black-oriented Pittsburgh Courier in 1945-56. It starred Patty Jo, a smart-mouthed little girl whose beyond-her-years wisecracks often startled her mute yet smartly dressed older sister Ginger (the fashionable Ormes modeled Ginger after herself). Although the strip looked innocuous enough on the surface, Ormes used the Patty Jo character to caustically speak on current issues ranging from segregation to the HUAC Communist witch hunts to Dior’s “New Look” fashions. Around the same time, Ormes also drew a full color romantic saga titled Torchy In Heartbeats, a series notable for its independent Afro-American herioine and Orme’s lush drawing style (a distinct improvement over Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger‘s cute but often stilted compositions). Goldstein also devotes a chapter to the highly collectible doll based on Patty Jo.

The book itself is a nice and thorough summary of Ormes’ life and career. My only complaint is that Goldstein’s text often detours into unnecessarily long passages giving context to the times she lived in. On the other hand, I did enjoy her paragraphs describing the often obscure topics covered in each Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger panel. Ormes’ comics are presented in the best possible way, despite many of them only surviving on grungy microfilm reels. All in all, with this book I was left with the impression of getting to know a fascinating lady who lived in a fascinating era.

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist is published by The University of Michigan Press. Buy it at Amazon.com here.

Jackie Ormes Patty Jo ‘n Ginger Spread

Jackie Ormes Torchy In Heartbeats spread

Book Review: Art Out of Time

Art Out Of Time book coverDan Nadel’s Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969 arrived as a Christmas gift from my s.o., who bought it off my Amazon wish list after I blindly put it on there a few years back. Something about the cover design and the concept of trolling through old newspapers for comic obscurities appealed to me. For once a stab in the dark paid off, for this is a beautifully produced book chock full of eye-popping images — not only from the world of newsprint but from short-lived standalone comics as well.

The various comics collected here mainly tell me that the word “visionary” in the book’s title carries a wide definition. In some cases it might be a series that never caught on, while a few pages later a popular and long-running newspaper strip which wound up getting lost over time might be showcased. Some (like Gene Deitch’s Midcentury Modern Terr’ble Thompson) contain brilliant visuals supporting rather dull stories, while others crackle with subversive wit but are ordinarily drawn. A few others, like the work of Rory Hayes and Fletcher Hanks (who recently got his own anthology published by Fantagraphics), are so singularly bizarre they could have only come from one mind. Whatever their origins, all of the included comics are at the very least fascinating glimpses into the times they came from. Dan Nadel arranged the comics non-chronologically in loosely thematic groupings, so paging through them gives the reader an eclectic experience. Nice touch.

On another note, I want to point out how gorgeous some of those early, pre-WWII newspaper Sunday strips were. Being able to lay out a strip on an entire full page must have been a luxury that some artists undoubtedly used to full advantage — and you get to see a lot of lovely examples of this in the book. It’s especially heartening when looking at today’s pathetically scaled-down newspaper comics.

Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969 is available now from Harry N. Abrams. Buy at Amazon here.

Art Out of Time book spread

Bette in Bookstores

Dark Victory by Ed SikovAlthough only the latest in a long string of similar bios, Ed Sikov’s Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis is an excellent book which manages to uncover new insights into the subject. Having considered Sikov’s 1998 bio on Billy Wilder one of the finest books on filmmaking ever, I devoured this one in galley format last summer. It’s a great, brisk read. Well-worn topics like Davis’ unfulfilling marriages and the production of All About Eve get a good going-through here, but the most satisfying parts are when Sikov simply describes the films themselves — even the most rudimentary Warner Bros. programmer in Davis’ career gets a fresh perspective. It leaves you with the impression that Bette was the consummate actress of her time, which is the ultimate compliment for a woman who made sacrifice over sacrifice for placing career over everything else in her life.

Another thing I have to mention: perhaps as a gift to Miss Davis’ most ardent fans, Sikov doesn’t shy away from giving his book a pronounced gay sensibility. The result is that even his most offhand observations have a zippy panache. Take his quip on the costuming in her 1942 soaper The Great Lie: “Orry-Kelly went out of his way to make Bette look dowdy — at one point he sticks her in a bizarre bonnet that makes her look like a cross between Little Bo Peep and Elvira Gulch …” Or this bit on daughter B.D. Hyman’s scathing tell-all book: “My Mother’s Keeper is a sour, whiny book written by a spoiled child who grew up and found Christ.” The book is filled with delicious little nuggets like those.

Perhaps the most tantalizing passage in the book comes when Sikov describes an unsold TV pilot Bette made in the mid-’60s. This show (which I’d never heard of before) was a sitcom scripted by Boys in the Band playwright Mart Crowley in which Miss Davis hams it up as a flamboyant interior designer. Dahlings, what I wouldn’t give to see that!

Book Review: Hand Job

Hand Job - book coverMichael Perry’s Hand Job: A Catalog of Type gathers the work of 55 artists who, in rebellion against computers, excel in hand-drawn typography and design. I remember first noticing this trend in the opening credits to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, with cast and crew names floating around in lettering mimicking the loopy and unpolished writing on a high school girl’s notebook. The designer of that sequence, Geoff McFetridge, appropriately enough counts among those featured in this book — a group that collectively draw their inspiration from vernacular sources like graffiti, homemade signage and, yep, notebook scribblings. The resulting pieces are a mixed bag, however. Some of the work is truly awe-inspiring or appealing in a scruffy way; others have the lunatic aimlessness of mental patient drawings. By and large, I liked it. It makes me wonder what I can do with just a pen or pencil and a scrap of paper. Judge for yourself — Perry’s website contains several spreads from the book.

Hand Job: A Catalog of Type is available now from Princeton Architectural Press. Buy at Amazon here.

Hand Job - spread

Book Review: Uncovered

Thomas Allen coverYou might have seen the work of photographer Thomas Allen floating around the weblogs a few months back — he’s the guy who cuts out and arranges pulpy paperback books from the ’50s in surprising and delightful ways. Now some of his work has been collected in a new monograph, Uncovered: Photographs by Thomas Allen. In his intro, celebrity designer Chip Kidd likens Allen’s work to those old Warner Bros. cartoons in which characters pop out of various books covers and have shenanigans with each other — a totally apt comparison. It might sound gimmicky, but his work is actually gorgeous to look at, with carefully considered compositions and a shallow depth of field which creates beautifully blurred shapes around the edges. The figures pictured in the cover art represent the typical fantasy archetype of that era — lots of busty babes and square-jawed manly men — and putting them in this setting makes them appear even more dreamlike. I also get the sense that Allen simply enjoys the variety of visual textures in these musty paperbacks — not just the covers but the spines and the pages. The more “used” they look, the better, with resulting imagery so sumptuous you could just dive into them.

Surprisingly, Aperture chose to bind Uncovered as a board book, meaning the pages are printed on thickish cardboard. An unconventional format for a non-kiddie book, for sure, but I like how it allows you to easily see a photo spread across two pages without the binding getting in the way. Although sporting a nifty die cut, the cover is blandly designed and gives no indication of the depth of Allen’s work. Also, I wish there were a few more photographs, but the ones they did choose to include are excellent.

Uncovered: Photographs by Thomas Allen is available now from Aperture. Buy at Amazon here.

Thomas Allen spread

Book Review: Taking Things Seriously

Taking Things Seriously coverBack when I worked at the local newspaper, one of the things I confiscated for myself was this ancient metal Swingline stapler which appeared to date from the Kennedy/Johnson era. Streamlined in design, heavy as a rock, painted Industrial Tan and covered in years of grime and scotch tape detritus, the stapler was so out of its element in that modernized office that I just had to adopt it as my own. I proudly kept it on my desk — and when I subsequently had to leave that job it got smuggled home, where it still sits on my desk. Though I rarely have the need for a stapler (much less an ungainly brick like the Swingline), I like to have it around to imagine the chain smoking, rumpled Broderick Crawford type who undoubtedly owned the hell out of it when it was new.

The stapler is a prime example of how we tend to bestow meaning and history onto the most banal and seemingly worthless of objects. With Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes took the idea one step further by asking several semi-known folks (mostly fringe writers and artists) about their favorite objects. The stories they collected are as diverse as the objects themselves: a bath towel, an antique wooden horse, a pine cone, a glass jar, a light bulb, worn plastic toys and mummified food. Although some of the contributors’ stories have a purely nostalgic bent, many of the people chose items that they associate with deeper things like the power of social ties or the utter randomness of life. Some of the stories are funny, others are unexpectedly touching. Admittedly it’s a strange idea to build a book around, but ultimately the project is beautifully executed in boxy paperback form. This would make a good gift for everyone’s favorite oddball.

Taking Things Seriously is available now from Princeton Architectural Press. Buy at Amazon here.

Taking Things Seriously spread