Buster Brown, (unknown date) 1903, panel 7. Drawn by Richard Outcault.
I've been wanting to write something on old cartoons for a few weeks now. Except for the obvious classics like Nemo and Feninger, turn-of-the-century comics art has until recently been a little too weird for me to really enjoy -- belabored and highly wrought, but often imbued with an incredible sadistic energy that gave rise to punchlines more intense than anything else the medium saw until the worst of the EC grinder stories. Interesting, if hardly pleasant, in small doses -- close to intolerable in larger ones. No one embodies the queasy idiosyncrasies of early gag strips better than Richard Outcault, creator of The Yellow Kid and, according to plenty of histories, the American comic itself.
There's a bizarre tension in Outcault's work. A push and pull between the kind of pure cartooning that would with Bud Fisher and George Herriman become the common language of newspaper strips, and a more illustrative mode that has its roots in the fine popular art of the 1800s, stretching back through pen-and-ink masters like Aubrey Beardsley to the woodcuts of Dore. The two styles mix and mingle on the page, but Outcault's art is hardly a synthesis; instead it's just a smashing together, an artist struggling toward the look of the future while still clothed in the look of the past. There's a discomfort to be had just looking at this stuff, a feeling that this is very aesthetically shaky ground. It's off-putting at first, but the jarring quality of Outcault's art gives it depth. You can't pin his style down as one thing -- parts of scenes are meticulously rendered, like every last little fold of the curtains' cloth, and others are barely there, left up to the color, like the rest of the room. It's alien, defiant art, drawings that are basically impossible to grasp the rationale of.
Then there's the actual cartooning -- or is it cartooning at all? It's tough to say, as there's certainly a bevy of distortion in Outcault's figures and faces, but done with nothing like self-consistency. )Note the more or less realistic depiction of the black dog as compared to the bristly, bug-eyed bendiness of Buster's dog Tige.) Then there's the question of simplification. While Buster, and indeed all Outcault's characters, have cartoon silhouettes, the penwork used to bring them to life is the antithesis of cartoon drawing. Thin-lined, over-rendered, meticulous, filled with superfluous detail, it turns Outcault's players from cartoons into grotesques. It looks as though the artist's strips take place in a world of gross physiognomic distortions, a land of dwarf-bodied, jack-o-lantern-headed dandy boys in thrall to Looney Tunes laws of physics. These comics are nightmarish, no less so for the schizophrenic, bug-eyed expressions of cannibal glee that settle on Buster and Tige's face any time pain is inflicted on anything. (That poor poodle! Jesus!)
There's a horror aspect to Buster Brown, and the cruelty of the darkly uproarious plots finds a hell of an abrasive mirror in the contortions of an artist caught between two idioms. Outcault's art is as far from what we'd call fully-formed as can be imagined, and the fact that he worked so adeptly in such a style for an entire career of punchline after physical punchline, laugh after painful laugh, makes one suspect that a bizarre genius lurks in the scribbly corners of his panels. Weird as anything, yes. But fascinating nonetheless.
(This is Your Monday Panel 14. Your Monday Panel 13 is called "Into The Void: Addendum".)