Thursday, December 25, 2008

Art and Commerce: Skitzy

Rob reviews a reprint of the 1955 book by Don Freeman, SKITZY (Drawn & Quarterly).

One has to admire the willingness of Drawn & Quarterly to dig up and reprint obscure but worthy comics. Every one has had its own champion (Chris Ware and Joe Matt with Walt & Skeezix, for example), and SKITZY was pushed by Dave Kiersh. The book's pleasures are modest and unassuming, yet the spontaneity of cartoonist Don Freeman's line and the life he gives to his figures makes reading the book a series of simple joys. The story is told with no dialogue and a bare minimum of narration, as we follow Floyd Skitzafroid on a typical day at work. He literally splits in half--one half going to his Greenwich Village art studio, the other half toiling at a tedious office job. His artist self is constantly, deliriously happy, while his worker self is constantly glum and preoccupied.

Freeman is best known for his Corduroy series of children's books, books with his sketchy line and a sharpness to them unusual for kid lit. Freeman combined the eye of an inveterate doodler (especially from life) with the lively wit and spontaneity of a James Thurber. What makes this book special is not necessarily the story (which has a couple of funny twists but is mostly fairly predictable), but rather the details. Freeman's character design and use of gesture and body language are all impeccably lively and kinetic. While it may seem slightly quaint to us now, the way he brought the bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood to life bordered on the exotic. One could almost see, taste and smell everything "Skitzy" experienced on the street. Conversely, one could almost experience the subway claustrophobia his alter ego felt as well.

While there is only one image to a page in this book, the transition between each page certainly feels more like a panel-to-panel transition. The book's liveliest sequence is when Skitzy is in his studio loft, doing a painting of a nude model. There's a three page sequence where the model is in the foreground with her back turned to us, with Skitzy partially obscured. The next page shows her done with her pose, but Skitzy is frantically leaning into his painting. Meanwhile, the model relaxes in the foreground, this time in profile. The third page brings both of them into the foreground together. Skitzy is relaxed and triumphant, showing off his to work to his mode. Her back is to the reader, her hands up in amazement and her hips at an angle as we see her form through her diaphanous robe. We sense that the model has a crush on the artist, but his only interest here is an artistic one--almost like a little boy and his devoted hobby.

SKITZY doesn't merit multiple readings, but it certainly does invite multiple viewings. Each page is a masterfully composed unit worthy studying, the meeting point of spontaneity and years of practice. The fact that Freeman felt strongly enough about his story to self-publish it over 50 years ago is a testament to what this era meant to him as an artist, and it shows him at the height of his powers. As fans of the form, we are lucky that publishers like D&Q are around to keep these works of self-expression in print, especially those that encapsulate a bygone era. Comics and cartooning has not always valued its own history, but that's changed in the 21st century as audiences have opened up for works like this. This is a book any comics historian or artist looking for inspiration (both in terms of lifestyle and spontaneity) would find valuable.

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