Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Art Out of Time

Dan Nadel’s book, Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969 (Abrams 2006, ISBN 0-8109-5838-4, $40.00) is a delightful romp through some of the more obscure nooks and crannies of comic strip and comic book history.
An apt title for the book would have been “Oddball Stuff I Really Like”, because that’s exactly what Nadel presents. Luckily the author has excellent taste, and most if not all of the material presented is well worth your perusal. While quite a few of the comic artists presented certainly don’t qualify as the unknowns claimed in the book title (Milt Gross, Dick Briefer and T.E. Powers, for example) , others presented are certainly well outside the bounds of the typical cartooning fan’s knowledgebase.

Nadel takes the smart route and has the pictures do the talking — there’s a short introduction in the front and a dozen or so pages of biographies in the rear. In between we get almost 300 pages of oddball and obscure comics, all blissfully unencumbered by any pseudo-scholarly appreciations, deconstructions, or psychoanalyzing. Ah, bliss!

I’ll refrain from presenting a laundry-list of the artists and titles presented because I think much of the joy of reading the book is in discovering the treasures as you work your way through it (I imagine amazon.com provides a complete list for those of you who don’t like surprises). However, I do have to mention a few that merit special attention. Nine Slim Jim Sunday pages are included, and if you’ve never had the luck to meet up with this almost unknown classic you’re in for a treat. Unfortunately, Nadel prefers the versions drawn by Ray Ewer and Stanley Armstrong to the original by the great George Frink, but to each his own. Eleven Sunday pages of Charles Forbell’s Naughty Pete are printed, an obscure strip that is, in my opinion, one of the greatest achievements of comic strip art ever committed to the page. On the comic book side, Nadel prints an episode of Stardust The Super Wizard (Fantastic Comics, 1940) that is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever read.

The reproduction of the material is a mixed bag. With a few exceptions Nadel has chosen to simply photograph the pages of the newspapers and comic books and present them without any retouching or cleaning. While this makes for a wonderful feeling of closeness to the source material (you can practically smell that great old paper aroma), it seems to me that it may go too far when we find the occasional page with a darkened brittle fold line in the middle, a dirt smear, or an obtrusive address stamp marring the art. More unfortunate still is that without some help from a retoucher some of the newspaper strips are practically unreadable, at least to these 40 year old eyes. These strips were lettered with a particular reproduction size in mind, and when they are reduced the word balloons and captions just turn into a sea of alphabet soup. At least three presentations definitely fall into the category of practical illegibility – Dauntless Durham, The Explorigator and Hickory Hollow Folks, and several others are also a challenge to the peepers. That being said, keep in mind that to reproduce some of these strips at a nice size, or to do all the necessary retouching, would probably have put the price of the book through the roof. So ya gets what ya pays for.

But minor quibbles aside, this is a book that will bring joy to any cartooning fan. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll see things you’ve never seen before, and you’ll be left hoping for the day when Art Out of Time Part II will be published.

A purely personal commentary: Dan Nadel at one time came to me looking to purchase certain materials for this book. Being that he has impeccable taste, and a yen for extremely rare material, the pearls that he wanted came at great price, and he pretty quickly decided that it would be far more advantageous to him if he could just borrow the materials gratis. The first time he suggested this solution to his problem I politely but firmly declined, and his several subsequent requests were met with silence.

Nadel is not the first to come to me with requests for borrowing privileges, and he won’t be the last (he may qualify as one of the more persistent, though). Anyway, I’d just like to explain to any who have the same idea in mind that I do not under any circumstances lend anyone material free for publication. First of all, I paid good money for the items in my collection (my wife would likely change the characterization good to insane), and I hope someday to have the option of selling it, perhaps even at a profit. Having this material reproduced in book form necessarily lowers its resale potential, so by lending it I’m taking a financial hit. Anyone want to buy a run of Li’l Abner dailies? Yeah, I thought not.

Second, if you are using my material in order to produce a book, article or some other product that you hope to market for your profit, then why should I lend you something for free that you are, in the end, going to sell? You wouldn’t expect me to bind the book for free, right? So why should I loan the material that fills the book for free?

Finally, there’s the very real chance that loaned material might just disappear or be destroyed. I knew a collector, now deceased, who consented to loan his complete run of an extremely rare and valuable comic strip to another collector so that it could be made into book form. Today that run would be worth tens of thousands of dollars, and even then it was nothing to be sneezed at. The person who received the loan of those precious pages is well-known in our community, a name we all know, and one who would presumably not want to damage their reputation. However, this irreplaceable run was not returned, all requests were ignored, and no amends were ever made for its ‘loss’. I won’t let that happen to me.

2 comments on “Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Art Out of Time

  1. YOU HAVE LIL ABNER DAILIES FOR SALE?! WHERE DO I ORDER??

    ok, I’m kidding.

    Interesting post- I picked the book up recently but haven’t been able to sit down with it with travelling, holidays and work all piling up on me. the day after christmas is already reserved for a reading tho.

    I appreciate your conundrum in wanting to see study of strips rise, but being loath to loan rare materials for all of the reasons you list above. I do have to say that the devaluing of a run isn’t always guaranteed…. by reprinting and thereby raising the awareness of a strip, you can actually increase demand. i’ve been looking for Naughty Pete tearsheets since i saw reprints in (i think) the smithsonian book of comics. I never knew to look before. (at least five years, and I’ve STILL never found any copies by the way). With stuff like lil abner, lil orphan annie, etc (in fact with most dailies i’d imagine), reprints could definitely kill the market.

    and, I know firsthand that you spend the $$ acquiring materials since i first became aware of you and your project when you bought 2 feet of Sunday comics off me!

    congratualtions on reaching the 400 mark!

    tim

  2. Hi Tim –
    Points taken, and I have to agree with you on the daily versus Sunday part. Reprinted dailies are practically unsellable, but with Sundays at least the original tearsheets have the bonus of (usually) being larger than the reprinted versions, and thus a market, albeit a smaller and pickier one, remains.

    And certainly it behooves us to show folks a sample or two of strips — that whets the appetite, whereas a complete reprinting sates it. If I didn’t have that philosophy then this blog would be graphic-free!

    Oh, and don’t feel bad about not finding a Naughty Pete for your collection. Neither have I. I’ve only seen them on microfilm, and now, Nadel’s book. They are tremendously scarce.

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