Art + Comics = Arf!

This is a golden age for publications about comics and their history. There are more reprints of classic comics (and in better formats) than ever before. There’s a broad range of books and magazines focusing on specific creators, the creative process, and the greater historical context surrounding their work. Beyond long-running publications such as The Comics Journal and Hogan’s Alley, the more recent Comic Art takes the production values and painstaking research of this practice to another level. In the same vein, Craig Yoe’s ARF books provide a stunning array of articles focusing on unusual features from familiar artists, eye-popping work from obscure or long-forgotten artists, clever collections of comics on particular themes, and primary materials that link the fine art world to the comics world. The slickness of the format suggests a stodgy coffee-table book, but the light and irreverent touch of Yoe makes this book a comics joyride instead of just a history lesson.

There are some repeating motifs in the first two volumes of ARF. One of them is how cartoonists portray fine art. One issue had a series of strips on artists and their models, while a second one took on trips to the art museums. This section serves as an appetizer of sorts for the reader, easing them into the book with a series of gags. The range of artists includes famous 19th century illustrator George Cruikshank, Dan DeCarlo (later of ARCHIE fame, but then known for his pin-ups), Wally Wood, R.Crumb, Hugh Hefner, Chester “Dick Tracy” Gould, Charles Addams and Pablo Picasso (!). Yoe makes it a point to discuss Picasso’s links to comics in particular elsewhere.

Another motif is Yoe unearthing some visually arresting work by an artist likely to be unknown to a modern audience. In MODERN ARF, he introduces us to Hy Mayer, a cartoonist known for doing “worm’s eye views” of events like weddings, skating rinks and theatres. It literally looked like the floor was transparent and he was sketching what he saw from below. InARF MUSEUM, we meet Charles Bennett. He drew these astonishing “Origin of the Species” cartoons which show humans evolving into and out of animals’ shapes, all done in a circular form not unlike MC Escher. The effect is eye-popping and well served by the book’s slick format.

Yet another theme is Yoe taking some subject he finds interesting and displaying multiple variations of it throughout history. In MODERN ARF, he looks at the origins of the MAD icon and figurehead Alfred E. Newman, whose image preceded its use in MAD by decades. In ARF MUSEUM, Yoe did a feature on the giant ape with woman archetype, which may have been inspired by a famous French sculpture. There was also another bit on cartoonists’ take on tattoos. These features were amusing but somewhat ephemeral; they don’t invite multiple perusals by the reader.

More interesting to me was his discovery of magazine articles by two of my favorite classic cartoonists: Milt Gross and Rube Goldberg. In MODERN ARF, there’s a story by Gross about modernist furniture design and a vicious feud between two rivals. Gross is a master humorist and the article is sprinkled with all sorts of wacky illustrations. In ARF MUSEUM, Goldberg penned an article about wanting to own a piece of furniture that was out of the ordinary and even depraved. So he had the Goldberg Electrolier (a sort of odd chandelier) created, only to find that every expert and aficionado of art mistook it for some sort of piece relevant to their field of expertise. Once again, the supporting illustrations here were simply marvelous.

I adored the concept and presentation of the continuing series, “Cartoonists Go To Hell”. Jimmy Hatlo is profiled in MODERN ARF and Art Young is showcased in ARF MUSEUM, but what’s interesting is that they used similar concepts in their strips. That concept was depicting the well-deserved punishment in hell for the annoying people in life: the man who invented the corset gets eternally constricted; annoying neighbors who mow their lawn at 6am get awakened every hour by a lawnmower on their heads, etc. It’s interesting that both artists considered their own version of hell having to look at their own work for eternity. With the dark-red background befitting hellfire, this fun feature speaks to the pulp and lurid aspects of comics that make them so appealing.

Of course, the book’s hook is “the unholy marriage of art + comics”. So it’s no surprise that two of the biggest features in the book centered on two of the most famous artists of the 20th century: Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. For the latter, we saw a comic strip he drew for his sister when he was 12, and the storyboard for a film that he never made. The strips made by the former were of greater interest. Picasso did a lot of numbered, sequential panels that were remarkable. Even if they looked quickly sketched out, the composition and fluidity of each panel just goes to show how versatile an artist he was. Many consider Picasso to be the greatest artist of the 20th century, and it’s obvious that he could have been its greatest cartoonist if he had felt like it.

Both features are followed by the influence of the fine artists on comics: Dali’s visual tricks were much parodied and copied in comics, with Steranko in particular using both Daliesque imagery and the 60′s op-art that was also inspired by the Surrealists. Picasso’s cubist revolution had a strong influence on Art Spiegelman’s early career, as evidenced by a couple of strips collected in BREAKDOWNS. Even stranger was “Touchdown For Picasso!”, a public service strip drawn by Shelly Moldoff that encouraged jocks to enjoy culture.

Perhaps my favorite strip in either book was a reprint of an obscure Jack Kirby strip titled “The Fourth Dimension is a Many Splattered Thing”. Three pages into the strip, the hero goes to a strange dimension and the world turns into a warped, cubist-inspired nightmare. On the flip side, Yoe makes the connection that since Kirby was the co-creator of the modern romance comic, his images directly informed the work of Roy Lichtenstein.

There’s yet more to see in the pages of ARF: never-before printed covers of Yellow Kid comics, unpublished strips by Patrick (Mutts) McDonnell, a feature on Italian artist Antonio Rubino, and a bit of Yoe’s own art. The key to making the books work is Yoe’s design sense. The fonts, the iconography and the art Yoe commissioned for each artist he profiles all create an environment that allows the art to speak for itself. One does not read ARF for a detailed textual analysis or critical assessment of each work presented. Like Comic Art or Comic Book Artist, each work is presented with a great deal of enthusiasm, and it’s left for the reader to decide how significant it is. Yoe’s widespread embracing of comics & illustration in all their forms throughout its history is what sets ARF apart, and one can’t help but to get swept up in his zeal. You can catch more ARF-related materials at Yoe’s blog

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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