- - Thursday, May 1, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

PERFECT NONSENSE: THE CHAOTIC COMICS AND GOOFY GAMES OF GEORGE CARLSON
Edited by Daniel F. Yezbick
Fantagraphics Books, $49.99, 320 pages

In June 1936, Macmillan Publishers released a book written by an unknown author, Margaret Mitchell, titled “Gone With The Wind.” More than 1,000 pages in length, and retailing for a lofty $3, it sold nearly a million copies by Christmas. The book became a massive literary success, and Mitchell would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A beloved film adaptation went on to capture the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Here’s a small bit of trivia about “Gone With The Wind.” A little-known cartoonist and illustrator, George Leonard Carlson, created the dust jacket for the first edition. The front cover is still regarded as a masterpiece and remains one of the most desirable items in the rare-book market.

Carlson should have become a household name owing to his direct association with one of the great American novels. Yet in what can only be described as a cruel twist of fate, the cover’s illustration achieved far more fame and recognition than the cover’s illustrator.

That’s regrettable. Carlson spent more than 50 years in his chosen profession. He was exceedingly talented and remarkably prolific, illustrating everything from children’s books to trains and ships. His artistic style could be classified as conventional at certain points, and completely off-the-wall and whimsical at others. In many ways, Carlson’s work was light years ahead of its time.

People will finally be able to learn more about this underappreciated talent in an excellent new book, “Perfect Nonsense: The Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson.” The editor is Daniel F. Yezbick, an associate professor of English at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, who has written academic pieces about comic art and Carlson’s life and work. Additional contributions come from the pens of Allison Currie (Carlson’s great-granddaughter) and comics historian R.C. Harvey. Meanwhile, Fantagraphics Books continues its tradition as one of the country’s finest comics publishers with a magnificently bound volume, plenty of color illustrations, and a superb cover design.

In my view, Carlson’s drawing style had traits similar to those of great cartoonists such as Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo in Slumberland,” “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend”), Richard F. Outcault (“The Yellow Kid,” “Buster Brown”) and Johnny Gruelle (“Mr. Twee Deedle”). This can be immediately detected in his work for the groundbreaking children’s magazine, John Martin’s Book. Mr. Yezbick writes that he was “JMB’s wunderkind, flooding every issue with a spiraling array of ornaments, geegaws, and finials of miscellaneous styles and traditions.” He came up with memorable characters like Peter Puzzlemaker (who “stood for a jolly kind of quizzical inquiry”) and “nonsensical ‘misunderstanding’ games” such as “What Happens When …” and “Did You Ever …” (“these mini-lectures of the slippery surreptitiousness of language tickled the linguistic fantasies of adults and children alike”). His lavish magazine covers are also a sight to behold.

The same can be said about his impressive 1917 oil paintings for Elizabeth Wade’s “The Magic Stone: Rainbow Fairy Stories,” and scintillating illustrations for the Uncle Wiggily series, Wanamaker’s Jollybook and Jingle Jangle Comics. In particular, the latter contained some of his most memorable creations, including the Pie-Face Prince Dimwitri of Pretzelburg.

In Mr. Yezbick’s mind, “Carlson’s work in Jingle Jangle Comics subsumed all manners of cacophonous sources into one big combustible hodgepodge.” The cartoonist-illustrator’s drawings can certainly be described as “folksy, screwy, and utterly without airs,” of course. Yet his “dream worlds bear the signature traits that define his work across five decades: a never-ending emphasis on the joy of intrepid discovery, an enduring respect for gripping imagery and the playfulness of living languages — pictorial and linguistic.”

Some of Carlson’s best work went far beyond his whimsical comic creations. For example, his train drawings — especially the Century of Railroads series — is magnificent. He illustrated “The Queen Mary: A Book of Comparisons,” a guide for young children traveling on the high seas, and his cross-section diagram of the ship is brilliantly detailed. His portraits of famous figures, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, show a fine use of light and shadow.

Comics historian Paul Tumey recently wrote in The Comics Journal, “What we have here is A Book on George Carlson, and not The Book on George Carlson.” That’s somewhat harsh, as “Perfect Nonsense” is the first extensive examination of a talented cartoonist and illustrator that time forgot. However, considering the way my six-year-old son has been mesmerized with the book’s illustrations and funny characters, maybe there’s room in Mr. Yezbick’s busy teaching schedule for a second volume on this most deserving subject.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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