Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Day In The Life Of A City: Denys Wortman's New York

One of my favorite comic art books from the past couple of years is Denys Wortman's New York, a bok that arose thanks to some digging by the head of the Center for Cartoon Studies, James Sturm. Wortman was one of those famously anonymous cartoonists from the first half of the twentieth century who produced a new one-panel comic four times a week for about thirty years. Other than a couple of collections with limited print runs, the strip mostly just disappeared from the public consciousness the way that so many strips are gone and forgotten, byproducts of an ephemeral form of media. Sturm was fortunate enough to get in touch with Wortman's son, who happened to be sitting on a treasure trove of over 5,000 originals by his father. Sturm, along with former student Brandon Elston, took a selection of these strips to form a narrative of sorts. The narrative doesn't follow a particular person, but rather the life of the city itself over the span of just one day. It's an extraordinary solution to the problem of how best to present this material in a way that doesn't drag.

What's interesting about this book is that the quality of the drawings is far better than a book that simply reprinted his work from newspapers or tear sheets would be. The book is shot directly from Wortman's pencils, which have an amazing power and sheer presence. This is a book about the teeming millions: young and old, rich and poor, working and unemployed, on the sidewalks or at the beach. It starts off in the morning, as housewives hang laundry outside their fire escapes and craggy old men rush to the subway. Young women rush to work as secretaries or factory workers, while middle-aged men try to find ways to collect on bills. Though the strips are not printed in anything resembling chronological order, Sturm & Elston still whip us across the city at work: the theater district, the garment district, maids, janitors, executives, and cooks at diners. With much of the strip running through the depression, Wortman shows us people desperate for aid and jobs. There's a jaw-dropping set of strips set in Coney Island, the vacation spot of choice for the working class. Though Wortman worked with a lot of photo references, he still does an uncanny job at capturing the spirit and the motion of so many people. The beach scenes are memorable because they depict huge crowds of people on the beach, on the boardwalk and under the boardwalk (with some poses that must have made the newspaper's censors a little nervous). He captures that sense of people wanting to pretend that they were somewhere exotic, even if every other New Yorker seemed to be there as well.
Wortman was also aces at drawing kids: out on the street, reading comics, running through fountains, and playing macabre games like "electric chair". His understanding of gesture and body language made every strip come alive, and his attention to detail like clothing is especially remarkable. This book is practically a class on New York fashions over a thirty year period, both of the rich and the working-class. We take a peek into classrooms, hospitals, doctor's offices, and beauty salons. We follow shopping trips and pretzel salesmen. We take a look inside the Museum of Natural History (that blue whale has been in the same place for a long time) and see the game from behind home plate at the Polo Grounds. We see the city in the sun and in the rain, go out on the town to dinner and the theater/movies/opera. We follow sailors going dancing and attend many a wild, late-night party. Finally, we see people make their way home, including one man on an empty subway who nonetheless can't help but stand up out of sheer habit.
Most of the captions to the images were written either by Wortman's wife or someone else; they were more capstones to the images than real gags. Some of them don't even try to be very funny--just accurate. The captions help provide some context and flavor for the images, though most of them could easily stand on their own. What I like most about Wortman's drawing is just how intuitive it is. He seems to know just when to use his charcoals to add some fuzz and shading to an image, and when to sharpen his pencil and let certain kinds of details pop off the page. These are not photorealist drawings, nor are they entirely expressionistic. These captions carry their own sense of reality, thrusting the reader into the image and giving one a true sense of what it might have been like to been in that particular moment, to see a wide range of actions unfolding in front of your eyes. The mass of humanity he depicts in page after page creates an imaginary buzz, as the reader imagines what all those people together must sound like. It's a rare art book that turns out to be a page-turner, but that's certainly the case with Denys Wortman's New York, and that's a tribute to the talent of the artist and the vision of the editors.

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