Tuesday, November 08, 2005

William Steig

While browsing at the Walk A Crooked Mile Bookshop over the summer I found several compilations of cartoons by William Steig (1907-2003); the most revelatory for me was Continuous Performance, (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1963).

While genius, like pornography, is difficult to define in the abstract, I agree with Justice Stewart in believing that I know it when I see it. William Steig was a cartooning genius, an unmistakeable master of the medium. Continuous Performance contains two extraordinary series that the artist titled "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu," and "Punch and Judy: Their Later Years."

"A La Recherche" is a nimble exercise in nostalgia, produced by the artist in his third decade of cartooning. First published in the New Yorker in 1959, the 13-image series produces a "child's eye view" of an immigrant family's experience in the Bronx of the early twentieth century. (The series was recently edited and recompiled into a children's book titled When Everybody Wore a Hat, [Harper Collins, 2003], and contains an extended text section aimed at children.)

In "Punch and Judy," Steig shows us several vignettes in the later life of a couple who have been performing for an audience their entire lives, and who have persisted as a couple despite the fact that they are both prone to fits of anger and explosions of cartoonish violence. The drawings depict Punch and Judy in moments of anger, fury, and tenderness, and provide an astute and humane reflection on the complexities of long-lasting relationships.

Issue #265 of The Comics Journal (Jan/Feb 2005) contains several articles covering the extraordinary artistic career of William Steig. The glorious Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2004) provides a searchable, complete collection of the cartoons that appeared in the publication from 1925 to 2004 on 2 CD-ROMs. This is a must-own for appreciators of Steig's work.

The image depicts two pages from the French edition of When Everybody Wore a Hat; from the publisher's (Galerie Martine Gossieaux) website. The original captions to the cartoons are: "Pa and Ma had European Friends" and "We Won the War!"

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