Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 25

« Swing your razor wide! Sweeney, hold it to the skies! » — Stephen Sondheim

Variations on a theme: The entirely reasonable dread of the straight razor.

First there was this Lee Elias cover that…

Actually, no. Before that, there arose the idea in art director Warren Kremer‘s ever-effervescent mind:

One of Kremer’s surviving preliminary sketches.
Then there was this one, more refined and with wonderful suggestions, instructions and notions addressed to the assigned cover artist, Lee Elias.
Ah, here we are. The final (in more ways than one!) version. This is Chamber of Chills Magazine no. 18 (July 1953, Harvey). Art by Lee Elias… but you know that’s not the entire process. Check out this earlier Hallowe’en post for more of that magical Kremer-Elias collaboration.

Then, one year on…

… appeared this cover entry by Québécois Joseph Michel Roy aka Mike Roy (inks likely provided by George Roussos). This is The Unseen no. 15 (July 1954, Pines), the series’ final issue. To give credit where it’s due, the death’s head reflection is a cute new wrinkle.

More than two decades down the road, Marvel, since they were already borrowing Harvey’s Chamber of Chills title (did they even ask? I wonder), figured they may as well reenact one of its classic covers.

Say, what’s this about the day’s first shave? … is there shaving after death? Hassles, hassles.

Though most would nowadays call upon electric shavers or disposable plastic razors, I presume that straight razors have made a comeback among the hipster set. Still, a niche is hardly universal.

This is Chamber of Chills no. 22 (May, 1976, Marvel). Pencils by Larry Lieber, raised on high by the masterly inks of Tom Palmer, who, not content with being one of the all-time finest ink slingers, was also an excellent colourist.

As a bonus, here’s one on the general topic by the immortal Chas Addams. It appeared in The New Yorker in 1957, then was reprinted later that year in his solo collection Nightcrawlers (Simon and Schuster). For more of that excellently-morbid Addams mirth, amble over to this earlier spotlight from our Hallowe’en Countdown’s initial edition.

Most modern reprints of Addams cartoons I’ve seen tend to be on the washed out, blurry side, so I’m grateful to have my ancient volumes of his work. Feast your weary peepers on this fine vintage!

-RG

Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Caustic Heyday

« When I grow up I would like to be an artist in France. » — Keith Haring

The other day, while weighing the idea of producing this post, I asked my wife: “Is Sempé too obvious a choice?”, to which she wisely replied: “To whom?”. To add another few grammes of perspective, I’m reminded of how, a decade-or-so ago, I was helping out a friend by manning his business phones while he took a vacation. One caller identified herself as Mme Sempé. I immediately asked whether she was related to the cartoonist. She was (they’re second cousins), but rather shockingly, this was the first time anyone had ever brought up the subject with her. Okay, so not so obvious after all.

If you only know Jean-Jacques Sempé‘s work through his cover illustrations for The New Yorker, well, you’ve missed his finest. Sempé (born August 17, 1932, in Bordeaux, France) was recruited in the late 70s, in the twilight of editor William Shawn‘s tenure (1952-87) with the magazine. To be quite frank, Sempé’s New Yorker work is his weakest, comprising almost invariably mawkish scenes of the dying arts: little girls practicing scales at grand pianos, ballet rehearsals and grand operas. And the work has only grown more anachronistic and sentimental with time; I’d say he’s the least compelling cover artist currently working for the magazine, with the exception of art director Françoise Mouly‘s little chouchou, the stiff and bland Adrian Tomine, he of the lifeless line and emetic palette. Ahem.

But there was a time…

In 1968, a decade-and-a-half into Sempé’s career, ever-lucid Belgian writer and historian Jacques Sternberg perceptively summed up the artist’s appeal:

« But Sempé’s humour has earned the favour of a very wide audience. Without a doubt because he’s able to observe with a playful — but rarely sadistic — eye the drawbacks and peculiarities of our daily lives, and that his reader feels — mistakenly — reassured by this vision.

Sempé has, in fact, a way with an impressive setting, with meticulous detail, of the mise en scène that sugarcoats the bitter pill and of the lyrical flight that dampens the ferocity of the content. The miracle occurs as if by magic: Sempé, who is rather scathing, seduces rather than worries his readers. »

A cartoon that first saw print in the pages of Ici Paris in 1958.
This cartoon appeared in France Dimanche, circa 1957.
Another one that ran in France Dimanche in 1957.
The signs say, from left to right: “They’re mocking us“; “More demagoguery“; “Freedom First!“; “End the abuse“, “Down with…” and… “We have found this glove“.
From France Dimanche (1957). This one strikes close to home for me. Makes me think of the sort of barbarians always seeking to ‘improve upon’ nature. A passage from friendly gadfly and crime writer Carl Hiassen‘s brilliantly scathing polemic, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World (1998) comes to mind:

« Disney is so good at being good that it manifests an evil; so uniformly efficient and courteous, so dependably clean and conscientious, so unfailingly entertaining that it’s unreal, and therefore is an agent of pure wickedness. Imagine promoting a universe in which raw Nature doesn’t fit because it doesn’t measure up; isn’t safe enough, accessible enough, predictable enough, even beautiful enough for company standards. Disney isn’t in the business of exploiting Nature so much as striving to improve upon it, constantly fine-tuning God’s work.

Lakes, for instance. Florida’s heartland is dappled with lovely tree-lined lakes, but the waters are often tea-colored from cypress bark. For postcard purposes, tea-colored water was deemed unsuitable for Disney World’s centerpiece, Bay Lake, so in the early 1970s Team Rodent sprang into action—yanking out many of the cypresses, draining the lake, scraping out the bottom muck, replacing it with imported sand, then refilling the crater. All this was done to make the water bluish and therefore more inviting to tourists. For good measure, Disney even added beaches.» [ read it here ]
Naturally, I don’t dislike *all* of his New Yorker covers. This one, from the November 24, 1997 issue, is a peach.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 5

« … his appreciation for city life was such that when I was a little girl and we would be going on walks, he would periodically draw my attention to the colorful and interesting patterns created by garbage strewn about on the streets, or by dilapidated storefronts with their torn-off signs. » — Gina Kovarsky on her father’s perspective

Funny how history works: for every world-famous New Yorker cartoonist, there’s another who’s just about been forgotten, yet is every bit the equal of his more celebrated colleague.

Anatol Kovarsky (born in Moscow in 1919, lived and thrived to the impressive age of 97) began working for the New Yorker in 1947, who published his cartoons and cover illustrations until 1969, when the man turned his full attention to painting.

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This specific piece first saw print in The New Yorker in 1956, and was collected later that year as part of the classic Kovarsky’s World (Alfred A. Knopf).

For further reading, here’s a pair of excellent articles on the esteemed Mr. K:
http://michaelmaslin.com/inkspill/anatol-kovarsky-still-drawing-after-all-these-years/
and http://coyleart.typepad.com/coyleart/2007/08/anatol-kovarsky.html

-RG

Abner Dean’s Universe: Before…

« No other state of confusion is as interesting as yours. »

By the mid-1930s, Abner Dean (1910–1982), Abner Epstein in New York City, had reached the pinnacle of his profession, and begun to make rewarding inroads into other pursuits and endeavours. Fruitfully and prolifically published in most of the top magazines of the era (and top era for magazines), such as The New Yorker, Life, Esquire, Coronet, Time, Newsweek, Collier’s, Look, Ladies’ Home Journal and so forth, he’d also scored in the advertising field (most notably through a fifteen-year association with Aetna Insurance).

Yet he was restless; he bristled at the limitations, conventions and formulae of the era’s gag cartooning world and had something grander in mind and up his sleeve. We’ll get to that.

But first, here’s a sampling of what Abner accomplished as a commercial illustrator and cartoonist early in his career.

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The following four cartoons appeared in the pages of Esquire, for which Dean produced in excess of forty colour cartoons, and scads more in good old black and white (frequently with spot colour adornment) between 1934 and 1955.

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Spot the influence? The girl is a dead ringer for one of Jack Cole‘s celebrated beauties.

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As Abner created five covers for The New Yorker (1933-35), it seemed absurd to leave any of them out, especially given their high calibre. Here they are, in order of their appearance.

DeanNewYorkerNov33ADeanNewYorker1934ADeanNewYorkerApr34ADeanNewYorker1935A

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Two examples of Dean’s illustrations for Aetna Insurance‘s long-running advertising and prevention campaign, for which Dean produced a whopping one hundred and ten drawings between 1940 and 1955. This one hails from 1946.

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To better convey the tone and tenor of the campaign, I’ve transcribed some of its text. This entry is from 1955.

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Our boy, wearing an appropriately skeptical expression, from the back cover of his Come As You Are (1955, Simon & Schuster).

Incidentally, what little remains publicly known about this once-famous man is the fruit of diligent research conducted by the eclectically erudite Ken Parille. As usual, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you!

-RG

Spending Some Quality Time With Barbara Shermund’s ‘New Woman’

Although it’s tempting (but lazy) to assume so, men didn’t *altogether* corner the risqué cartoon niche.

It would be quite an injustice to count out the magnificent Barbara Shermund (1899-1978), prolific contributor to The New Yorker (including eight covers) and Esquire magazines, and so much more.

Far too little is known about this pioneering artist, but here’s an insightful piece aiming to rectify the situation, at least a little, written by Caitlin McGurk:

https://library.osu.edu/blogs/cartoons/2012/03/27/womens-history-month-barbara-shermund-1899-1978/

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Nothing new under the sun! Frankly, that situation hasn’t gained a wrinkle since this cartoon’s appearance in The New Yorker‘s July 21, 1928 edition.

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One of Ms. Shermund’s aforementioned New Yorker covers, from the June 29, 1935 edition.

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« All I said was, ‘Granny, how do you like my new bathing suit?’ » Undated piece in ink and watercolour.

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« She’s lost! » Esquire, 1944. Ink and watercolour.

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« Mr. Dillon, I’d like to ask your daughter’s hand in marriage. » (1953, ink and watercolour.)

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« Who was that fellow I saw you with at Ciro’s last nite? » (Cheering Section, 1955. Ink and watercolour.)

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« Mother always makes me write it five hundred times before I go out with Mr. Parker » Esquire, publication date unknown, ink and watercolour.

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« Let’s play cowboy and indian! » (Cheering Section, 1959. Ink and watercolour.)

I can’t help but be reminded, by that final piece, of Jack Cole‘s rather more trenchant take on a similar power imbalance, published a year earlier.

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« Well, there’s history repeating itself. » (Jack Cole, from Playboy, January, 1958.)

– RG

Steig Swoops In: The ‘Epic in Jazz’ Cat Sextet

« The only escape from the miseries of life are music and cats » – Albert Schweitzer

In the mid-50s, New Yorker cartoonist (and children’s book author, sculptor and Orgone Box owner) William Steig (1907-2003) was called upon to throw together some illustrations for Epic Records’ “Epic in Jazz” LP series, which featured classic 30s recordings from the likes of Johnny Hodges, Chu Berry, Count Basie, Barney Bigard and Cootie Williams. One might safely opine that the good Mr. Steig outdid himself. You be the judge.

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John Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges (1906 – 1970) was a saxophone giant of the big band era, and closely associated to Duke Ellington’s band. This 1955 compilation gathers some key recordings from the mid-to-late 30s, including Rent Party Blues, Skunk Hollow Blues and Dooji Wooji.

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Bobby Hackett (1915-1976) was a trumpet, cornet and guitar player who performed with Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller’s bands. Among my very favourite of his recordings are some he made in the 1950s with trombonist supreme Jack Teagarden. There was tremendous musical and personal camaraderie between these two.

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Trumpeter Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan (November 2, 1908 – June 2, 1942) had, according to Al Rose, the custom of carrying « several packages of chewing gum in his pocket, not because he was addicted to the vigorous mastication of chicle. He had an even more practical use for the stuff. He’d put three or four sticks of gum in his mouth as we approached a boîte with liquor in mind. Once inside, we’d sit at the bar and order our drinks. Then he’d excuse himself, promising to come back in a moment. He would walk purposefully off, to the men’s room I assumed incorrectly. Early on I discovered that what he was doing was finding the jukebox, putting a wad of Wrigley’s Doublemint through the coin slot, then pushing the slide in to assure the device’s inoperability for at least as long as we’d be there enjoying our drinks. He’d return to the bar secure and relaxed in the knowledge that our ears wouldn’t be assaulted by bad music. »

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The great Rex Stewart recalls Chu: « Chu Berry was a big bear of a man and, as a matter of fact, he resembled a great big teddy bear. He was always in good humor and never had an unkind word to say about anyone. His given name was Leon Berry, his home town was Wheeling, West Virginia, and he hove onto the Harlem scene with his tenor saxophone. While he lived, he loved the life of a musician, late to bed and even later to rise. His favorite hangouts were Tillie’s Chicken Shack on Lenox Avenue and the Victoria Cafe on Seventh Avenue, where they used to serve good barbecue. Later he’d frequent the Woodside Hotel along with the fellows with Count Basie’s band when they lived there. Chu loved to talk, drink and eat, and if he could do all three while playing he was in his particular seventh heaven. »

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« Probably no other band has brought such fame to sidemen as the Duke Ellington band », sagely states Shirley Hoskins Collins in the liner notes of this peerless LP showcasing four of the Duke’s finest acolytes: Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges.

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If I need to tell you who Count Basie and Lester Young are, you need to treat your ears to some fine vintage jazz, pronto.

These sets were reissued over the years, often with bland photo covers (oh, the infamy!), but Sony Japan has done right by the series a few years ago, reissuing it on cd while retaining the essence of its visual allure and, in most cases, adding four tracks of the same calibre and vintage to each disc.

Did I mention that Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie are also in attendance? Sorry, it must have slipped my mind, what with all the excitement and bathtub gin.

« My neighbours listen to good music whether they like it or not. » – Unknown

– RG

Hallowe’en Countdown, Day 28

« I hope I will not be accused of undue vanity if I publicly thank Mr. Addams for immortalizing me in the person of the witch’s butler, to say nothing of the rather hairy gentleman whose clothes are strangely cut and who appears to subsist on a diet of bananas. »

Boris Karloff, from his foreword to the Addams collection Drawn and Quartered (Random House, 1942)

At the risk of being obvious, the ghoulish wit of Charles Addams brings us Hallowe’en on any old day of the year… but it’s no reason to take him for granted when the proper season slinks into view. Here’s a small selection of favourites. I’ve noticed that many latter-day collections have been plagued by terrible reproduction (heads should roll for that particular crime against art!), so I’ve gone back to the original collections in my library. Enjoy, fiends!

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A lovely piece originally featured on the cover of The New Yorker’s November 2, 1963 issue. This logo-free version was reprinted in The Groaning Board (Simon and Shuster, 1964.)

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Addams at his understated best. A 1953 cartoon collected in Homebodies (1954, Simon and Schuster.)

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« Well, here’s where I say good night. » A Morticia prototype from an undated cartoon collected in the first Addams collection, Drawn and Quartered (Random House, 1942.)

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« While you’re here, there’s a squeaky trap-door I’d like you to look at. » That’s the Morticia we’ve come to know. Also reprinted in Drawn and Quartered (Random House, 1942.)

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown, Day 20

On a damp and chilly night, is there a finer way to keep warm than huddling with your beloved?

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From The New Yorker 1955-1965 Album, published by Harper & Row.

Richard Decker, (b. Philadelphia, PA, May 6, 1907, d. November 1, 1988) fruitfully spent four decades as a contract cartoonist for the New Yorker. His association with the magazine began in 1929.

Along the same ordre d’idées, here’s a bonus piece about the evocative magic of old time radio, by long-time Gasoline Alley cartoonist (and bluegrass fiddler) Jim Scancarelli (b. 1941), from the April, 1979 issue of Child Life Magazine.

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Care to fully capture and bask in this delicious melancholy? Go ahead, pour yourself a snifter of your favourite poison, hunker down in your coziest chair, and enjoy an episode or three of the classic The Shadow radio show, starring Orson Welles.

– RG