Ken Tucker reviews three new titles from indie publisher Fantagraphics: a book about comics artist Dan DeCarlo, plus ''Uptight #1'' and ''Insomnia #2''

By Ken Tucker
July 14, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Millie the Model: Dan DeCarlo

Innocence and Seduction: The Art of Dan DeCarlo

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Ken Tucker rounds up new Fantagraphics titles

Now celebrating 30 years of publishing vanguard comics, criticism, and any provocative thing that catches its fancy, Fantagraphics Books deserves its own mini-roundup of current releases, which will serve to suggest just a bit of its vast range. Here’s to many more decades of superlative independent publishing.

Innocence and Seduction: The Art of Dan DeCarlo, by Bill Morrison
Dan DeCarlo was one of those odd figures in comic-book history who, like Jack Cole (Plastic Man), worked in mainstream comics and turned out sunny, vivid drawings — he was the premier Archie Comics company artist, setting the visual style for the co-starring characters Betty and Veronica — but who also had a wild, sometimes dark, side. As revealed in the new, beautifully designed hardcover book Innocence and Seduction, DeCarlo, before and during his G-rated days as the auteur behind Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica, churned out reams of cheesecake art for ’50s and ’60s magazines with titles such as Zip, Fun House, and Jest.

DeCarlo’s life story ended sadly. Like so many before him, he was a comics artist woefully mistreated by his employers: Archie Comics denied him credit for creating Josie and the Pussycats, which cost him hundreds of thousands in potential royalties from marketing and from that dreadful 2001 Rachael Leigh Cook-Rosario Dawson-Tara Reid movie. The company cut him loose when he took them to court, and he died in 2001, at age 82, little more than a week after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal for ownership of the Josie characters.

What Innocence and Seduction needs in its text is less about the former and more about the latter: Morrison never delves into the meaning and motives behind DeCarlo’s fecund creation of what Morrison too-discreetly calls ”T and A.” The usually tough-minded editors at Fantagraphics (whose primary founder, Gary Groth, is one of the sharpest intellects to scrutinize this medium) have, for whatever reason, gone a little soft in this book. It would have benefited greatly from some serious analysis and theorizing about what those sexy drawings meant to young readers and adults who grew up with Betty and Veronica and who, like the artist, loved seeing their big doe eyes and avid smiles traduced as intensely erotic cartoon-art of jaded swimsuit models, showgirls, and golddiggers. B+

Uptight #1, by Jordan Crane
Parents don’t understand you and fight with each other all the time; you try to make friends with a cool loser with a motorcycle, but he’s always putting you down; you’ve got no after-school job and your house is a mess. And then there’s the matter of death. Artist-writer Jordan Crane understands everything about what I just described except death, which he tries to imagine in a fiercely original way and pretty much succeeds. Terrific, uncompromising, moving stuff. A

Insomnia #2, by Matt Broersma
I bought the first issue of Insomnia a year ago in France, and assumed that Broersma was French, with his sedate mastery of nearly wordless, surreal film-noir suspense tales. Turns out he’s American-made, apparently based in England, and this second issue of Insomnia is, once again, unlike anything anyone’s doing: elliptical tales of lonely middle-aged men who may or may not be deluded about the heroic tales they tell about their youth, and of beautiful middle-aged women seeking true love and wealthy sugar daddies — they’ll take either or both. At once breathtakingly cynical and irresistibly moving. A

Innocence and Seduction: The Art of Dan DeCarlo

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