Friday, May 20, 2016

Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World

There have been a great many cartoonists who have had a huge impact on the world, and even some failed ones (like Hugh Hefner) found ways to still truck in comics and be successful. This book Masterful Marks tells a number of biographies about these titanic figures, using comics as the medium and a number of notable contemporary creators as authors. Many of the stories told here are superb in terms of their topic and also by their execution. Peter Kuper's bio of Harvey Kurtzman was cleverly and masterfully composed in ways that incorporated his subject's signature style in the narrative. But my favorite one was by Drew Friedman about R. Crumb, which conveyed Crumb's influence and also contained a good number of personal anecdotes about his encounters with different comics creators. It was a beautifully drawn essay with lots of fun flourishes and lively storytelling:
The other entries were as diverse in style as the subjects they cover. Many of them focus on hard luck tales of creators being cheated out of their creations and the fortunes they wrought. I really enjoyed Mark Alan Stamaty's take on Jack Kirby as well as Ryan Heshka's beautiful artwork on the entry about Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster:
Other stories focus on those who found fame and fortune through art, including entries on children's book author Dr. Seuss, celebrated caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and the progenitor of the macabre Addams Family, Charles Addams:

What was also excellent for me, an old fogey who knows a lot about comics and their creators, is that there are also some entries about folks I had never heard of, like Lynd Kendall Ward (who created the first graphic novels) and Rodolphe Töpffer (who created the first comic strips). The only real clunker in this book for me was the entry on Walt Disney, because it basically amounted to a few pages of an adult talking to a child with little action or creative use of comics to convey a narrative. It was like reading an encyclopedia entry, only in word balloons. Happily, all of the other entries in this book were much better, most being remarkably excellent.

Common in the critiques of I have read of this book is that it is not very diverse. There are no woman represented as subjects in the book, and Osamu Tezuka is the only creator represented from a non-European background, but I still think that there is much here among the biographies to inform, delight, and surprise those unfamiliar with many of these figures. I also think that such an absence also acts on a commentary about the history of comics, when many minority groups were not given entrée.

Monte Beauchamp edited this book and also authored four of its entries. He is a graphic designer, illustrator, author, and editor who has won multiple honors, including the Richard Gangel Art Director Award. He is best known for his long running anthology of comics and art Blab!, but he also has written a number of books about popular culture, including ones about Krampus and vintage matchbook cover art. Beauchamp speaks more about his work and choices in writing/editing this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book praise and describe a collection of mostly strong stories. Don Simpson called it "a slick and attractive compendium of drawing board history told in a diversity of current styles." J. Caleb Mozzocco commented positively on the "Murderers’ Row of great contributors and collaborators" who worked on this book. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "There’s always a hit-or-miss quality to such projects, and some question over the selections, but what’s great here is really terrific."

Masterful Marks was published by Simon & Schuster, and they have a preview and more here.

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