‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn
Editor’s Note: For those equally attracted to prose and to comics, Jerome Charyn has quite a significant connection with the comics medium. He has collaborated with some of the best artists in Europe. For instance, you’ll want to check out titles written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by Francois Boucq. A new title is in the works too. For additional posts, including those featuring comics, go right here.
Saul was the first king in the Bible but, as writer Jerome Charyn points out, he took a backseat to the celebrated David. It was David who gained all the glory and Saul who was left in the shadow. That’s not to say Saul wasn’t worthy. He simply wasn’t favored by God. It’s a tough place to be and a lot of people can relate to that. In his distinctive and vivid way, Charyn collects in his new book some of his best work on the theme of the underdog, the one deserving yet less embraced. In the new book, Charyn also provides a look back at a writer’s influences. In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.
It matters little if you’re famous or unknown when it comes to being an underdog. New York mayor Ed Koch, for instance, shares a similar spot with Saul too. In one piece, Ellis: An Autobiography, the reader follows Charyn down the mean streets of the Bronx in the ’40s to an unfolding immigrant’s tale. The featured guest in this narrative is the famously accessible yet often maligned Ed Koch. In the process, it seems that everything is revealed all at once in a kaleidoscope of rich detailed observations. New York City, a city of ups and downs, had reached the brink in 1975 and was nearly bankrupt. Enter Ed Koch. He turned the Big Apple into a boomtown again. But the featured guest ultimately takes a backseat to his city since it’s New York City that’s the real star.
No one person, after all, is so much a star as part of something bigger. As Charyn makes clear in his enchanting writing, the glory is in the details. In another piece, Faces on the Wall, Charyn reflects on the power of film–and Hollywood in particular. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer ran a tight ship but, in the end, the flickering screen held its own sway:
“The simplest screen was much bigger (and darker) than any of the movie moguls. The studios could tyrannize the content of a film, declare a land of happy endings, but they weren’t sitting with you in the dark. They could control Joan Crawford, but not the hysteria hidden behind those big eyes, or the ruby mouth that could almost suck you into the screen.”
Charyn takes pleasure in sharing the lesser known achievements. His admiration for such literary greats as Saul Bellow and Isaac Babel is infectious. But, with the same gusto, he champions less known writers like Samuel Ornitz and Anzia Yezierska. It is in doing so that he honors his offbeat choice for a hero, the much maligned and misunderstood King Saul.
In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.
Captain America Caption Contest in Support of Tolerance
Can you think of a winning caption for the above cartoon? Details follow.
When this cartoonist decides to put on a Captain America costume, he knows it will get complicated. New York based cartoonist Vishavjit Singh has set out to open the hearts of his fellow citizens and it looks like he’s gaining ground.
If you live in the Seattle area, you will want to especially take notice of a caption contest for Singh’s new art show, “Wham! Bam! Pow!” at the Wing Luke Museum! Email your caption for the cartoon at the top of this post to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to win a $50 gift card to GoPoke, a pair of general admission tickets to the Wing Luke Museum, and a framed drawing of this comic from cartoonist Vishavjit Singh with your winning caption.
WHAM! BAM! POW!
Vishavjit Singh began drawing cartoons in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: as a Sikh American with a turban and beard, he had become the target of a toxic mix of fear, anxiety and ignorance. Vishavjit set out to challenge the label of the ‘other’ placed upon him (and many others of Sikh, South Asian, Muslim, and/or Middle Eastern extraction) by illustrating stories capturing the joys and predicaments of Sikh American life. His simple imagery and gentle humor often come with an edge that pierces stereotypes, prompts self-reflection, and promotes action.
In 2012, horrified by the deadly attack on a Sikh Gurudwara (house of worship) in Wisconsin, Vishavjit decided the world needed a superhero who fights bigotry and hate in our midst. Wham! Bam! Pow! follows Vishavjit’s journey as he explores America’s inspiring, contradictory values and discovers the heroic power of compassion.
Wing Luke Museum in Seattle
Don’t miss “Wham! Bam! Pow!” from May 4th to February 24th, 2019.
Now on display at The Wing.
Look in the About section to his website and M. Jacob Alvarez says of himself: “M. Jacob Alvarez is a cartoonist, comedian, and chemical engineer (seriously dude, silly drawings and conspiracy theory jokes don’t pay many bills…)” How true! Well, being a chemical engineer is an astonishingly good place to be if you want to create a graphic novel. Less to worry about or more room to worry about other things–since there’s always something. How about if you’re young and vulnerable? That is exactly the subject matter Alvarez tackles in his new graphic novel, “Chinatown Bus.” It is a heart-felt exploration of hipsterdom–and Alvarez’s irreverence serves him well here.
There’s a certain time in your life when you will not only tolerate, but even revel, in drinking cheap beer from a Solo plastic cup, sold to you at a premium price since you’re in a chic nightclub (which ain’t so chic). There you are under a low ceiling packed in a little sweatbox with a bunch of other scenesters pretending to like a really bad band. So intense! The aim of Alvarez’s 84-page graphic novel is not so much to satirize. More like to bear witness. While not an autobio comic, Alvarez admits in his forward to being very familiar with the struggles of his young characters.
“Chinatown Bus” by M. Jacob Alvarez
Alvarez has a wonderfully energetic and cartoony style that is accessible and inspires empathy with his characters. Lyn is a guy from Philly taking the Chinatown Bus to New York City. He is in a long distance relationship and is sort of feeling stuck. All it takes is a text miscommunication from Kelly, his girlfriend, and Lyn is ready to call it quits. To his credit, Lyn is certain that Kelly has just dumped him. There is a cute passenger he’s been eying and so he decides to confide in her. Jane, flattered to have Lyn open up to her, invites him to hang out with her.
Panel from “Chinatown Bus”
It turns out that Kelly did not really dump Lyn, at least not outright. Alvarez really enjoys setting things up and then lighting the fuse. A fine example is once all three of these characters meet. Jane ends up knocking Kelly out cold. Lyn explodes and unleashes his fury upon Jane. He chastises her. Turn the page and Jane is full-on outraged for being called a drama queen. Three more pages, and we see Lyn’s steady descent, completely alone and deflated.
Page from “Chinatown Bus”
Any reader will enjoy a gritty urban tale about young people trying to find themselves. These characters definitely have their flaws and are prone to hide behind caustic remarks but Alvarez presents it all with a human touch that will resonate with the reader. This is a great example of a cartoonist’s debut graphic novel. Alvarez has successfully followed through on a specific theme and vision.
“Chinatown Bus” is available at multiple comics shops including Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Columbus, Ohio. For more details, visit M. Jacob Alvarez right here.
Cartoonist Julia Wertz has a distinctive outlook (irreverent, pithy, snarky) that has gained a loyal following of readers. With her latest work, she brings her unique style to bear on the Big Apple. It is an honest, funny, and insightful approach to learning about how cities evolve, particularly New York City, the quintessential urban mecca. Early in her cartooning career, Wertz said she resisted writing some sort of coming-of-age book set in NYC. Now, more mature, she can dish on the history of the city that never sleeps while also, inevitably, sharing something of her journey of self-discovery. It all makes for an intoxicating blend: “Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City,” published by Black Dog & Leventhal.
Wertz sets up a poignant and vulnerable starting point: the remains of the New York World’s Fair of 1964. It’s not a pretty sight. No, it’s a mishmash of faded totems to the future. Ironic stuff, indeed, irresistible to a wise-cracking cartoonist! Surely, you know that most, if not all, cartoonists have a sardonic sense of humor. And Julia Wertz is just the sort of sardonic tour guide you would want. But it’s not just about the snark–far from it. Sure, Wertz puts the 1964 World’s Fair through the wringer, deeming it a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. Now, the 1939 New York World’s Fair had style but, in its own way, it too was a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. This sort of comparison easily lends itself to delving deeper and therein lies what this book is about, what makes it unique and beautiful.
Egg Creams, best to keep them simple.
New York City is all about the tension between the pretty and the not so pretty. Wertz revels in this fact. It seems as if she can’t get enough. Just when you think you have this book figured out, Wertz will delight the reader with shifts in narrative, compelling visuals, and overall heart-felt enthusiasm, the sort of lust and vigor you’d expect from an Indiana Jones in the jungle except this is Julia Wertz on countless urban expeditions. She tracks down everything: bagels, egg creams, The Village Voice, railroad flats, micro-living units. It’s all here and then some.
I love New York almost beyond words. My heart goes out to Julia Wertz and her marvelous long walks spanning hours upon hours and covering multiple boroughs and miles. I highly recommend taking this book on a NYC trek of your own. It’s a hefty hardcover but, if you make it your primary item in your backpack, you’ll be just fine. You can make your own comparisons and connections guided by all the amazing drawings that Wertz has to share of bygone and contemporary New York. This book is really an inspiring combination of prose and artwork and comics. This is simply a dazzling book collecting a treasure trove of insight and information and making it all feel like a carefree conversation.
223 W. 42nd Street in 1964 and in 2014.
“Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City” is a 284-page hardcover published by Black Dog & Leventhal.
If you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see Julia Wertz at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run, or the the Seattle Public Library. At Short Run, on November 4th, Wertz will be giving a slideshow/talk about her urban exploring from 3:30-4:30pm at the Vera Project. And at the downtown Seattle Public Library, on November 5th, Wertz will hold a slideshow and conversation with cartoonist Nicole Georges from 2-4pm.
There’s a lot of thought and care that goes into a solid work of comics but the results should be magical for the reader. Within the multi-layered world of independent cartoonists there is a fair amount of intrigue mixed in with camaraderie. Creators can get lost in a fog of competing interests. The answer is to find your way and simply pursue your vision. Cartoonist Craig Johnson II has tapped a significant vein of New York City history to create a comic both purposeful and entertaining. THE LEGEND OF PINKY, an ongoing series ultimately to be a graphic novel, published by Carbon Age Comics, is set in the early years of gangsters (1920s to 1930s), specifically involving the interconnections between Jewish and African American players.
Harlem’s uneasy friendship with Pinky.
The main character is Irving “Pinky” Horwitz, a lean and mean trained killer in the Goldman gang. He is an exceptional assassin, when he bothers to do his job. Pinky’s biggest flaw is an utter lack of discipline. If there is a chance for him to feed his lust and ego, he will take it. And his favorite place to do that is Harlem. In that arena, reckless young women jump into bed with him and skeptical young men sometimes push back and sometimes accept him. With Pinky, and those in his orbit, Johnson has created one of the most fascinating comics currently available.
Pinky and his mom.
The story begins with a pivotal moment gone wrong. Pinky was supposed to report for an important mob hit of two rivals. Instead, he was in bed with his latest conquest. Meanwhile, Sam, his partner, attempted the complete the two-man job by himself but was only able to kill one of the two men. And so begins the conflict that demands resolution in the first issue of this comic. Pinky, no doubt, is due his comeuppance. But Pinky is not without some redeemable traits. Clearly, Pinky seeks approval. There are two women in particular that he cares about: his own mother; and Yetta, a union organizer of garment workers. He takes great delight in showing most people his disdain. But, for a select few, he values some connection, especially the friends he seems to have made in Harlem.
Pinky in his element.
I am often asked what it takes to create a graphic novel. Well, I like to add that this undertaking is, intrinsically (in the undertaking) and ideally (in the creator’s vision), a heroic work. And then I always say that a hero (or an anti-hero) is essential to the story. By and large, this is the model of the vast majority of successful graphic novels. Most of these works are biographies and borrow from history in one form or another. The fact is, to do this right, you don’t want to get bogged down by the facts. This is a work of entertainment, not a meticulous history. Johnson is spot on in how he incorporates history into the bigger picture of his narrative. Everything lifts off the page as we follow accessible characters and vivid action.
Graphic novels, when true to their original intent, are vivid works of sequential art that evoke the breadth of a prose novel within its own unique narrative structure. Johnson is sensitive to what is possible in the comics medium. He has done the legwork necessary to create a credible foundation as he goes about completing his full-length graphic novel. The artwork is dynamic and the pacing is compelling. Essentially, he has found something that can be quite daunting for many a cartoonist lost in a fog. Johnson has found something to care about. He is compelled to follow through on his vision. This first issue clearly demonstrates that.
Be sure to keep up with Craig Johnson II right here and THE LEGEND OF PINKY, and Carbon Age Comics, right here.
Harry Homburg was a porn magazine mogul. His life was not poetic or refined. But he could always rely upon making money and getting laid. That’s all that seemed to matter. And then the bottom fell out of the traditional porn industry. This is the basis for Danny Hellman’s new book that follows one man’s attempts to claw his way back to the top. I believe Danny Hellman to be one of the hardest working illustrators in the business. He has secured his place in his chosen field of illustration with a singular style and sense of humor. “Resurrection Perverts: Hunter’s Point” is his first long-form work in comics.
Is there more to life than sex and money?
I’ve seen various short comics narratives from Hellman and I’ve always enjoyed them. I do appreciate his often ribald and provocative stuff and this new book about a fading porn publisher fits right in with his jaded big city tough guy brand. The book is set up at one panel per page. The introductory remarks attached to the book state that it is “one scene per page, like a series of smartphone screens.” The premise is that, in order to save his failing Harlot magazine, Harry will do anything–except change with the times. And why should he? As far as he’s concerned, the typical Harlot reader not only is tech clueless but can’t even afford a computer. This comic itself, interestingly enough, mirrors Harry’s cynical view. Like a really goofy skit on SNL, you just roll it and Hellman has the balls and the skill to get away with it.
Almost like father and son.
There’s a moment in the story where Harry Homburg is preparing to have dinner with his elderly business partner. Harry calls over the waiter: “Jimmy, listen. This guy is macrobionic. No menu. Just bring him a bowl of moss.” It’s a sharp and funny little moment. And I could very well see Hellman writing the whole book just to include it. The book really feels like a wiseguy giving everyone the finger and that’s not easy to do well, and with style. If you’re a fan of Howard Stern (and, at this point, who isn’t?) then you’ll relate and rejoice to the humor found here. If you’re looking for the next cutting-edge work in graphic novels, this is not that kind of gem. That said, it is a gem, all the same.
A night out at Papageno.
Much of our story takes place in Lower Manhattan at Restaurant Papageno. There is excitement in the air with the anticipation of Homburg’s publishing exclusive photos of a sex scandal involving a US President. Add Homburg’s struggles with the digital age and it all feels circa 1998. But that’s neither here nor there. Basically, Hellman would tell you, it’s the present–deal with it. And, you know, I can deal with it. If you’re someone who has explored NYC with any depth, you know there is plenty of activity lost in a time warp. This is all fun and gritty stuff that rings true. And, sure, I’d be happy to see people reading this comic on their smartphones. As of this writing, this book is only available as a hardcover. A Kindle version will be available as of June 1, 2017. This is part of a series so I am eager to see how things develop with this project.
“Resurrection Perverts: Hunter’s Point” by Danny Hellman
“Resurrection Perverts: Hunter’s Point” is a 112-page hardcover, in full color, published by Dirty Danny Press. You can find it at Amazon right here.
I really appreciate the insightful review by Stacey E. Bryan of my graphic novel, “Alice in New York.” Stacey is the author of the humorous supernatural thriller, “Day for Night.” Her review is a wonderful boost of acknowledgement. All of us writers and artists strive for just this sort of connection.
The Big Apple. For a lot of people, those four words would mean little or nothing. But for me personally, it means a lot, because I was living there in 1989. The Twin Towers were still intact. Our country hadn’t turned that strange corner yet and started accelerating down a slippery slope into the 24-7 fear-mongering which has left us in the mess we’re in today.
When you’re in a mess, there’s no room for magic. But in 1989, in New York City, the old gods, the old ways, were still intact, and this is the year and the setting where Henry Chamberlain captured that feeling tenderly and bravely with his graphic novel “Alice in New York.” […]
The story begins in New York City…one hour into the future. Crime runs rampant, rogue cops patrol the rubble-strewn streets, predatory gangs steal anything that isn’t nailed down, and the once powerful mafia dons cower in fear in their tenement prisons. Someone is killing the mob chieftains one by one, and the last survivors call on Alonzo, The Family Man, to hunt down the murderer. But it won’t be easy – not when Alonzo’s own brother Charles, the gun-toting Monsignor of the corruption-ridden New York City police department, is a prime suspect.
Full page of original art by Joe Staton
Jerome Charyn (The Magician’s Wife) is one of my favorite writers. He is a one-of-a-kind visionary. Charyn has worked with some of the best cartoonists in the world and his work with Joe Staton (Dick Tracy) is no exception. Take a look at the examples in this post and it will give you a taste of the hard-boiled, multi-layered tale that is FAMILY MAN. A Kickstarter campaign is on now thru May 21st in support of releasing, for the first time, a collected graphic novel of this classic work. Visit it right here.
Jerome Charyn & Joe Staton
This is a project that Mr. Charyn and Mr. Staton worked on in 1994, during the heyday of Paradox Press, an imprint of DC Comics. Take a closer look at the artwork and marvel over the distinctive shading made possible with the Craft Tint duotone process. These special bristol boards were coated with shading underneath the surface. The artist exposed the shading as needed. Back in 1994, FAMILY MAN ended up as a three-part comic book series of 96-pages each. Thanks to IT’S ALIVE! Press, this stunning work of comics can now be given the best possible presentation as a graphic novel. That includes displaying each page as it originally appeared on the art board
Close-up view of Joe Staton artwork
I really can’t say enough about the remarkable talent of novelist Jerome Charyn. We will pursue that further in subsequent posts. What I’ll say now is that he was way ahead of his time, at least in American circles, by taking his literary skills to the comics medium. In Europe, for example, that has been well understood for decades. In America, we’ve had time to catch up. If you read a Charyn work in comics, you are treated to a vast world of intrigue with characters that will get under your skin. For FAMILY MAN, Charyn and Staton serve up a nice pulpy noir tale set in New York City “one hour into the future.” It is a story about two brothers on separate sides of the law caught in a dystopia they understand all too well and which will pit them in a bloody conflict.
It’s not too late to join in and reserve your copy of FAMILY MAN. This is a wonderful opportunity to own a shining example of comics at its best. Check out the Kickstarter and learn more about rewards, including original art by Joe Staton, right here.
LITTLE TULIP, a graphic novel recently reissued by Dover Publications, by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, is definitely not something that is cooked up overnight. No, on the contrary, like anything worthwhile, this is a work that is carefully constructed with meticulous precision. It only looks effortless, and it is the sort of comics that I prefer.
Paul, the master, teaches Azami, the apprentice.
This graphic novel immerses the reader in Soviet prison tattoo culture. Within the Russian underground community, these unique tattoos formed a service record of a criminal’s transgressions. Skulls denoted a criminal authority. A cat represented a thief. And, in the case of our story, a tulip represented a young person joining the ranks of a gang. Today, these same tattoos have become fashion statements because of their mystery and fierce beauty. They were, then and now, a way to step beyond the ordinary. For our main character, Paul, they were also a way to step beyond the horrors of the gulag.
Page from LITTLE TULIP: New York City, 1970
Our present setting is New York City, 1970. There is a serial killer on the loose. Paul runs his own tattoo shop and is also a police sketch artist. His work with the police is more than just a gig but a calling, a way to seek justice. Not only does Paul have that uncanny ability to render a likeness based upon a witness’s verbal description, he also has a sixth sense about criminals. He will often act as a medium for hard to crack cases. There may be honor among thieves but, for Paul, there are crimes that compel no mercy.
Paul came from an American family that chose to live in Moscow for a while. The timing could not have been worse since this was the 1950s during the reign of Stalin and the secret police. One misunderstanding too many and the whole family gets shipped off to Siberia where they are immediately separated into a gulag. But, just as all hope may be lost, Paul, now Pavel, has inherited from his father an artistic sensibility that will help him endure the worst.
Page from LITTLE TULIP: Train Trip to Siberia
This is a story as much about one man’s journey among hardened criminals as it is a story about how life and art commingle, how art can save one’s soul. This is a multi-layered masterpiece of a script by renowned writer Jerome Charyn; and a breathtaking, bold, and completely enthralling work of art by renowned artist François Boucq. The structure of this graphic novel is just impeccable: a story told at a easy and natural pace with room enough for metaphysical musings.
More more details on LITTLE TULIP, and how to purchase, visit Dover Publications right here.
Anyone interested in illustration, art, satire, or the specific art of drawing, will know something about the career of Edward Sorel. The work of Edward Sorel covers a wide spectrum resulting in a hefty portrait of the human condition, with a notable eye to speaking truth to power.
My interest in Edward Sorel runs deep. I checked out from my school’s library Sorel’s 1972 collection, “Making the World Safe for Hypocrisy.” It was 1973 and I was a sensitive and highly impressionable lad of 10 years-old. I was filling sketchbooks with portraits of Watergate personalities, both villains and heroes. I tore into that book and marveled over Sorel’s distinctive crosshatching and his lively expressive line work. I was in awe with how he brought to life various dignitaries, politicians, and movie stars. The gold standard had been set in my mind and it hasn’t changed ever since. What really wows me now goes back to my early introduction to the work of Edward Sorel.
Quotes from reviews for Mr. Sorel’s new book, “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright/W.W. Norton & Company:
“Life is so unfair. I tore up the old linoleum in a grungy apartment I rented years ago and found under it only schmutz, hardened chewing gum and a torn ticket stub to ‘Moose Murders.’ Ed Sorel tears up the old linoleum in his apartment and finds yellowing newspapers with headlines screaming about a scandal that gave him material for a terrific book. Not only does he then write a terrific book, but he illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings. Who would figure that Mary Astor’s life would provide such entertaining reading, but in Sorel’s colloquial, eccentric style, the tale he tells is juicy, funny, and in the end, touching.”
—Woody Allen, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
“Rapier-sharp…With a tip of his pen to Daumier, the artist evokes the quaint, febrile glamour of Astor’s Hollywood, and his affectionate, conversational prose gives Mary and her story a kind of valiant dignity never bestowed while she lived.”
—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal
“Delightful, colorful, and occasionally cheeky.”
—Allison Sadlier, Entertainment Weekly
From “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” by Edward Sorel
Edward Sorel (born Edward Schwartz, 26 March 1929, The Bronx) has recently released a book from Liveright/W.W. Norton. The book, entitled “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” is about his lifelong obsession with film star Mary Astor but it’s also a memoir of a sort. You may have read Woody Allen’s review of the book in The New York Times Book Review. Allen had the honor of introducing many new readers to the opening story in the book: It is 1965 and Edward Sorel, newly married and settling into new digs, is left with the task of replacing the old linoleum kitchen tile. Lo and behold, buried underneath is a stash of old newspapers chronicling the scandalous 1936 custody battle of Hollywood star Mary Astor. Well, the rest is history and this most engaging book.
I interviewed Mr. Sorel this last Wednesday, February 8th. I hope you enjoy it.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Turning our attention to Mary Astor, what is intriguing about her is that she had a life where one plus one kept equaling three. Despite a series of bad choices, whether in lovers or career options, Mary Astor managed to persevere. Is that part of the appeal, that she took such an offbeat path?
EDWARD SOREL: The appeal came when I read her memoir. She was a self-denigrating and witty writer. Very observant. Somewhat cynical about Hollywood. She had an intelligence that appealed to me. Then I started seeing her movies and I was hooked on her. Her bad decisions that you refer to have to do with having had an abused childhood, not in any physical way but in a mental and psychological way.
Her father kept her from having friends because he didn’t want her to see how Americans lived, how Americans treated their children. He wanted to be the dictator of his home. And he succeeded. She was unable to break free from him until quite late in her life. And it kind of ruined her. And God knows she made a lot of terrible mistakes in her life.
Marry Astor and John Barrymore.
I was watching 1924’s “Beau Brummell” and I am intrigued by the relationship Mary Astor developed with her co-star, John Barrymore, of all people. In their case, the twenty year age difference was inappropriate. However, it was what it was. And it was through Barrymore that Mary Astor learned a lot and gained self-confidence.
He did do her a lot of good but not for any altruistic reasons. He was out to nail her. He was on his way to Hollywood on the 20th Century Express. He had just completed the most successful run of “Hamlet” that America had seen. He was acclaimed as America’s greatest actor. He was on his way to the coast to make “Beau Brummell” for Warner Bros. because they were paying him a lot of money. And he picks up a magazine that has a photograph of Mary Astor about the age of 16 and under the photograph it said, “On the Verge of Womanhood.” Barrymore had a particular liking for virgins.
As I pointed out in the book, it was Barrymore who had his way with Evelyn Nesbitt, who later married Harry Kendall Thaw. And it was Thaw who shot Stanford White, America’s great architect, because he thought Stanford White had taken his wife’s virginity–when, in fact, it was Barrymore. That is a sidebar I’m proud of since I pieced together that bit of information.
According to Mary Astor, Barrymore really believed that he was going to marry her. And maybe he did plan to. But when Mary would not break free from her parents, after Barrymore offered her starring roles, because her father forbade it, Barrymore realized that she was just a child. She was completely under the sway of her father. Marrying a woman twenty years younger was one thing but marrying a child was something else. He broke her heart by calling it off.
I think it’s a cartoonist thing, as I’m a cartoonist, that we keep seeking out the offbeat. So, in the spirit of that I throw out a curveball, and ask you about your changing your last name to Sorel. You are referring to Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” I loved that book and the main character, Julian Sorel. Is there something interesting going on there with that connection?
I liked to think that I saw myself in Julian Sorel because he was like catnip to women, which I really wasn’t, and he hated the corrupt society of his time, as I hated mine. The first election that I voted in was the one between Eisenhower and Stevenson. I took a dim view of both of them and voted for a third party.
The other thing about Julian Sorel was that he hated his father. God, I certainly hated mine, not only because he tried to discourage me in wanting to be an artist but because he was a mean-spirited ignorant man not kind to my mother, not kind to anyone. And I didn’t want anything to do with him. I was going to be a cartoonist and I didn’t want to sign my name, Schwartz, in the right-hand corner. And I chose the name, Sorel, because of the novel. It seemed as good a name as any.
“Stagecoach.” 1980 illustration for Esquire magazine.
I think back to myself as a boy wondering about how you created your work. You’ve spoken about “finding lines.” Could you share a little bit about that?
When you work commercially, and you’re taking assignments, you have to show the art director what you plan to do. So, you do sketches of the drawing you plan to do. And, after a while, I began to notice that my sketches had more vitality and life than my finishes did. My finishes were often dead and overworked. And so I tried to emulate the quality that I had in my sketches which meant doing it without tracing. In point of fact, that’s impossible to do if you’re doing very complicated scenes. You can work direct if you’re doing a face, a figure, a still life, or anything relatively simple. You can work direct without tracing and the work has a vitality to it. But when you’re doing complicated scenes, with many different elements, you really do have to know where you’re going. So, I found out that if I just had a light outline of where I wanted the elements to be, and didn’t trace, I could keep this sketchy quality that I think gave my art work some distinction.
“The Goodwood Races,” 1939, by Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).
That quality of your art has influenced so many artists, whether they realize it or not. And, certainly, there have been other artists who have used an “expressive line.” You have talked about some of your favorites, like Feliks Topolski. There’s a certain sensibility that you both share.
Yes, well, he wasn’t trying to be funny like I always have. But his work has spontaneity, which I value in every artist. Wether its Bemelmans or Topolski. What shocks me now is to find so many artists who enjoy doing art work with a computer. I’ve seen some very nice computer art. You can get that nice flat color and can do all sorts of tricks that you can’t do by hand. But, to me, it doesn’t seem like fun. It seems like working on a machine. I just love the act of drawing. I’m a throwback. Most of the illustrations that you see today in magazines, and God knows you don’t see too many, are computer-generated in some form or another.
One compromise is for the artist to draw some of the illustration by hand, scan it, and do the rest on a computer.
It doesn’t seem fun to me but it must seem fun for them. I don’t cast aspersions on their way of doing it.
I think it boils down to being a time-saver. And, once a routine has set in, that’s the way it’s done and that’s it.
The other thing about computer art is that there’s nothing original, nothing to hang on the wall. You could have a show but it would only be prints. To each his own.
“Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition,” 1967, by Edward Sorel
I wanted to touch on one of the all-time classics, your 1967 anti-war illustration, “Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition.” The real life punchline there is that you were all set to roll out a poster when the focal point of the piece, Cardinal Spellman, passed away rendering your satire unsellable. Now, there’s some divine intervention.
The day it came off the press is the day he died. It never sold in any store in America. It is in a museum in Amsterdam. One store in Chicago tried to sell it and had its window broken. Apparently, Cardinal Spellman had some fans in Chicago. That was a bad break. You get some bad breaks and you get some good ones. I was the recipient of Woody Allen’s praise on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. That was the best break I ever had.
From “Edward Sorel: Nice Work If You Can Get It,” 2011, by Leo Sorel.
I encourage everyone to check out the short film on you that your son, Leo, did. That is quite informative and a treat. It shows you in your studio. And then the Q&A afterward with illustrator James McMullan is very impressive. Towards the end of that, you talk about the pen you favor, a Speedball B6. I’ve always had a devil of a time with steel point dip pens. But the Speedballs I could manage. And then you flip it backwards to get the crosshatching.
Yes! That was my secret. The Speedball does move and it allows you to be kind of spastic over a piece of paper.
“Nixon and Mao,” 2007, The New Yorker.
I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump. There was that drawing of him as Medusa you did last year. The big news at the moment is all about Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren. I could see that as perhaps triggering an Edward Sorel drawing.
I can’t cope with Donald Trump. I haven’t done political cartooning in a number of years. I can’t deal with him. With all other presidents, you could make fun of their hypocrisy and have fun with them. But Mr. Trump is kind of crazy. And he’s dangerous. He’s cruel. Making fun of him doesn’t seem what’s called for. It’s trivializing him. He shouldn’t be trivialized. He’s really a danger. People are really scared. They wake up with Donald Trump on their mind and they go to bed with him on their mind. He’s a heavy presence in our lives now. I don’t know how to deal with that.
You can’t call him the new Nixon. At least with Nixon, there was a mind at work. It’s being very generous, but there was some sense of integrity compared to Trump. Nixon you could call a president. But, with Trump, he’s president only by title.
He seems unhinged. I think it was Bernie Sanders who called him unhinged. He seems too crazy to be in that office. I don’t know what else to say about him.
Donald Trump illustration, 2016, for Vanity Fair.
Especially living it right now. It is stomach-turning. I won’t talk about him anymore. But I do need to mention Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer. Have you seen that?
No, tell me about it. I’ve been trying to avoid the news lately.
Well, Melissa McCarthy is a comic genius and she was on Saturday Night Live last weekend. She did a spot on impersonation of Sean Spicer, had the look and mannerisms down.
Oh, wait, I did see that! A friend sent that to me.
I think that has the power of a political cartoon and then some. It captivated everyone. It was an emotional release for everyone to see that.
Yes, I’m sure it was. It was very funny.
It seems to me that every artist needs a hero, someone to play off of. I see your book, weaving your life with Mary’s, as following the artist’s struggle. I think of how Mary evolved. I think of how Mary and Bette Davis were able to rewrite “The Great Lie,” turning that around into a notable film.
She did become a very fine actress. But she also became a little bit like her father, terribly obsessed with money. She twice turned down contracts for starring roles since she believed supporting roles would provide a longer career. She did indeed have a long career. She was in over 100 movies. And she was going strong until about 1959. She didn’t take chances. Maybe she didn’t believe she was a good enough actress. She missed having a chance at great roles and great performances. That was too bad.
My obsession with her has to do with my thinking I wasn’t a great artist because I didn’t have an obsession. So, I was very grateful when people called my interest in Mary Astor an obsession. Yes, it was an obsession and I do think it helped produce my best work.
“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel
Can you tell us about your connection with Boston University?
I was very lucky to have Boston University buy my entire work, my oeuvre, as we say. In March, they’re having a retrospective of all my work and, as a matter of fact, I’m still packing up things to send there.
The Howard Gottlieb Center at Boston University has one of the finest collections from all walks of life. They have the second largest Martin Luther King collection. They have many of America’s great writers. They have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They have most of the actors and actresses from the golden age of Hollywood. I’m very delighted to be part of this collection.
Mural by Edward Sorel at The Waverly Inn, completed in 2007. From left to right: Eddie Condon, Donald Barthelme, Willa Cather, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Jane Jacobs, John Sloan, and Andy Warhol.
I heard a siren in the background. It brings back my visits to New York. You are a lifelong New Yorker and I know how much you love New York. Could you share some of your thoughts on the city?
I do love New York. I don’t love the crowds anymore. I do worry. When you live in a city like New York, you do begin to see a kind of science fiction future: crowds everywhere, lines everywhere. New York is kind of becoming that. They keep building these enormous skyscrapers without thinking about how the city will accommodate it. They’re not building out, like they did in Los Angeles. They’re building up. It used to be that the only crowds were in midtown but now crowds are all over. And you find yourself walking in the gutter because there’s too many people on the sidewalk.
So, yeah, I love New York. The New York that I grew up with, where the museums were free and everyone went to public school, seems to have vanished. Everything is expensive now, including the museums. It’s very difficult for young people. When The New York Times that I used to buy for three cents is now $2.50, The New Yorker which I used to buy for ten cents, is now something like $7, it’s bizarre. And, of course, the wages that young people get are pitiful. So, yeah, I love New York but I don’t like the time particularly.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I can tell you about my next book. It’s going to be similar in structure to the Mary Astor book. It’s going to be a memoir. It will be about my growing up in New York. And it will be about the thirteen presidents that I’ve lived through.
My point is that every one of these presidents, whether I liked them or not, committed illegal acts, overthrew governments illegally, and did unconstitutional things. Starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became enamored with Billy Graham. It was through those machinations that they put “In God We Trust” on our currency and inserted “Under God” in our oath of allegiance. Somehow, I regard that point in history as the slope we’ve been sliding ever since.
Now, it’s done so garishly with someone like Trump.
Right. Trump, the great Christian, who apparently was much loved by the Bible Belt. I don’t think there’s anything more derogatory I can say about organized religion than that they were responsible for the election of Donald Trump.
Is part of the new book you’re working on sitting on your drawing board?
Not yet. A little bit is sitting on the computer. Nothing has been drawn yet.
I wish you well on that. It’s been exciting and quite a treat to get a chance to talk with you for a bit.
“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.