Coffee-table art books are a breed apart. Their imposing size and weight gives them an aura of scholarship and authority. Yet when we actually sit down to read one we typically find that they’re like a fancy box of chocolates — a whole lot of lace and ribbon and darn little chocolate. This new book from the Library of Congress is definitely all about the lace. Yes, there are some tasty chocolates to be had inside, but if you buy the book with the idea of expanding your knowledge of cartooning history you’ll likely be disappointed.
The book is a whopper, weighing in at four pounds and running over 300 oversize pages. It contains nearly forty essays and a bumper crop of illustrations. The reproduction is sumptuous and the subjects impressive. There are quite a few page turning “wow!” moments, like page 44 where we find the original woodblock to the Thomas Nast masterpiece “Let Us Prey”. Much of the artwork comes from Art Wood’s huge collection, a collection sold to the LC by Wood after years of trying to make a go of his own museum. In fact, Harry Katz in his introduction tells us that the book is essentially a celebratory exercise tied to the procurement of the collection.
Despite the ample illustration count, one problem does pop up frequently. In a number of essays a particular piece is discussed at length, yet it is not reproduced in the book, or it is reproduced but many pages past the discussion. It gives the impression that the book producers may have chosen some of the images without reviewing the essays or were just plain sloppy. It happens enough that it gets downright annoying. And the producers really put their foot in it in one case. Lynn Johnston contributes an essay on the writing of her strip, an essay in which she goes on at length over her need to be original and to develop her unique voice. Unfortunately it’s impossible to read this essay with a straight face when the facing page treats us to an enormous blow-up of a single For Better or For Worse panel that is a direct swipe of a classic Dennis the Menace gag. In Johnston’s defense the panel shown was originally a drop panel from a Sunday page, and few would quibble about her using a quick swipe to get that mostly unseen panel out of the way. But I can only imagine how stricken with embarrassment she must have been when she saw the book.
Notwithstanding the cover art, which features a gallery of newspaper comic strip characters, the book does actually take a good stab at covering all facets of cartooning, but few of the essays hold any outstanding interest for the serious comics fan. There are far too many of the inevitable eulogies for classic comic strips (Krazy Kat, Peanuts, etc.), editorial cartoonists (Herblock) and magazine cartoonists (Hirschfeld, Saul Steinberg). On the other hand there are a few gems. Ron Tyler’s essay on Mexican cartoonist José Posada is a high point. So is John Canemaker on a few particularly interesting animation items at the LC. Edward Sorel attempts to rehabilitate Clare Briggs, a cartoonist who for some reason seems to have fallen out of favor with cartoon fans over the last few decades. On the (unintentional) lighter side, editor Harry Katz has taken an interview with Pat Oliphant and cobbled it into an essay in which Oliphant comes across as if he was muttering into a tape recorder late at night after far too many cocktails.
One essay deserves special mention. Alan Fern, formerly chief of the LC’s prints and photographs division, pens “Cartoon Connoisseurship: What Makes a Great Cartoon Great?”. In the essay Fern, a fellow who should certainly know better given his background, makes the utterly bizarre case that a cartoon’s greatness can only be properly judged by examining the original art. He points out, correctly, that when art is reproduced fine details can be lost, and the printing process itself can add to or subtract from the effectiveness of the art. Right you are, Mr. Fern, but that’s the whole point. A cartoonist drawing for reproduction is only great if he is a master of his or her medium. To an artist making art specifically for reproduction, the original is entirely incidental. That’s why so few cartoonists bother to keep all their originals. The reproduction is the thing, and a professional cartoonist cannot be judged on the quality of their originals. The success or failure of a work of art can only be fairly judged in its final form; and for a cartoonist that form is on the newspaper or magazine page. Is an Escher print to be ignored in favor of examining the linoleum tiles from which it was created? Would Fern judge the quality of a film by reading the script and examining the storyboards? Of course not. Artists who are incapable of handling the medium are failures, artists who understand and bend the medium to their will can achieve greatness.
I have the funny feeling that Alan Fern’s essay is, at heart, an apologia for the Library of Congress. Does it not seem just a trifle odd, really, that a library collects original artwork? Isn’t that more the purview of art museums? I can see having a few archived for the benefit of the occasional display, but does it really make sense for the LC to archive thousands upon thousands of pieces of original art, the vast bulk of which will never be seen again after being carefully filed away for some vaguely defined reference need? An art museum is in the business of putting great art on display; a library has no such mission. The library’s job is to archive materials of value to researchers. Yet the LC routinely pulps most of the books they receive (supposedly retained for copyright purposes, if nothing else, but they in fact retain very few), and has consigned the vast bulk of their invaluable bound newspapers holdings to the dumpster in favor of blurry and incomplete microfilm “equivalents”. Much of this is done with the excuse that the LC simply doesn’t have the room to store all this material. Yet apparently they do have room for a vast collection of original art. I’m probably overreaching my abilities as an armchair psychologist here, but is it possible that Fern, who has likely been ordered to prune the holding of his own LC department over the years, has come up with this nonsensical philosophy that values only the original in order to soothe a bruised conscience over the material he has been forced to consign to the trashbin?
Is Cartoon America worth 50 bucks? No, not really. But as with most coffee table books it will probably end up in the remainder bin of your local Books-a-Million in short order. At a reduced price the book is certainly a joy for the lovely pictures if nothing else.