Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Russell Patterson & Dupuy/Berberian

Fantagraphics has been releasing lush art books detailing the lives and work of artists whose work bears significant historical significance. Russell Patterson was one of the most important illustrators of all time, who also happened to do a lot of cartoons & comics as well. Tophats and Flappers, a book devoted to his art, is astonishing because the illustrations, despite defining and giving an iconography to the 1920's and 1930's, look thoroughly modern. Dutch publishers Oog & Blik have released an English translation of The Complete Universe of Dupuy & Berberian, an astonishingly gorgeous, full-color collection of paintings, sketches, illustrations and other ephemera by this French duo best known in America for the Monseiur Jean stories published by Drawn & Quarterly. While they're from a different era, this tome (complete with commentary by the artists) is a smooth pairing with the book on Patterson.
Patterson came from a time when illustrators were celebrities and made vast sums of money. After years of struggle, he found success during the Roaring 20's. His illustrations defined a certain look and feel of the era; in fact, the widespread use of the term "flapper" is often attributed to his work. As his career went on, he did more girlie-mag type art that still maintained his sophisticated style even as the content became racier.
Reading the book, I was struck by how the accumulated illustrations so sharply depict a sense of time and place. Patterson's mix of slashing angles for his figures & exaggerated ovals for faces lend a certain frenetic energy to his illustrations. In fact, many of his non-comics illustrations are far livelier than many of the actual cartoons & comics included in this volume. If the 1920's were immortalized (and not in an especially flattering manner) by F.Scott Fitzgerald in novel form, it's Patterson who brings these images to life. The difference is that Patterson the man became part of the decadence of the era, and so presents an entirely unironic take on what he saw.

Patterson did illustrations of parties, crowds at college football games, and countless images of "liberated women" drinking, cozying up to men and dressing up in scandalous clothes. My favorite image is a two-pager of Miss America on a float in a parade. The detail of thousands of bug-eyed bystanders gawking at her figure, with swarms of confetti and other lines spread across the page in a dizzying fashion leads the reader to two older women in the foreground, making a jealous crack at Miss America. The way Patterson composed the huge illustration to make it exceedingly easy to follow the joke while simultaneously dazzling the audience with detail is a triumph of design. The great thing about Patterson is that he understood one of the fundamentals of cartooning, that "realism" is less important to the eye than making a scene come to life. A photorealist take on his surroundings would have been dead on the page. His cartoony, exaggerated style conveyed enough detail to make the reader understand what they were seeing, but it was the way he stylized each scene that draws the audience in. Patterson's art helped define a subculture that was part of the national consciousness and so had an immediate influence on popular culture; really, it was popular culture.
It goes without saying that for fans of Dupuy-Berberian, The Complete Universe is a must-have. At the same time, this book is $55 and so would not be recommended for those with only a passing interest, other than as an object of great beauty. This is a book of art and illustrations, and as such, there's virtually no actual comics content here, other than a passing appearance or two by Jean or other familiar characters. There's an easy, almost lyrical quality to the way the images pass by on the pages, aided by the artists' brief & witty commentary. What's striking about this duo is that their powers of observation are matched by their powers of imagination. Their ability to imagine Paris in the 20's and bring it to vivid life is as remarkable as their capacity to visit any city and depict its warmth, life and energy.

Like Patterson, D&B have a special touch for drawing women. Their women tend to be long and angular, with a certain mysterious quality that makes them so appealing. Most of the works in this book were commissioned illustrations. In the introduction to the book, the duo recounts their influences and speak glowingly of classic illustration. For them, there's no boundary between art and commercial art. Thus, they approach any commercial job they acquired with the same seriousness and aesthetic approach as they would their comics. They had a way of making commercial art personal, a manner eventually aided by the fame they achieved through their comics work.
Dupuy & Berberian took on all sorts of work: calendars, greeting cards for their publishing houses, artwork for liner notes and album covers, advertising (including an extensive & amusing series for a winery), book covers and more. The most extensive material here are magazine illustrations; their ability to evoke a concept, place and mood make them perfect for such assignments. There are also pages of unpublished sketches, paintings and drawings. Combined with their sketches of cities like New York, Lisbon, Barcelona & Tangier that were later published as stand-alone sketchbooks, what one takes away from this volume is simply how much they love to draw. The book spares no expense in properly showing off the art; not only are the production values high, there are several gorgeous multipage gatefolds, one of which depicts a vivid scene of a band playing in a New York cafe. Despite their many and varied professional assignments, the duo's passion for drawing seems insatiable. Extensive samples of their art (including some images seen in the book) may be found at

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