Friday, November 20, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 Who’s Zoo and Who’s What in Sullivant-World.

by Rick Marschall

We all (all of us, right?) love (not merely like) old comics (and cartoons and illustration), right? Elsewise you would not be reading this column. I assume.

I often assume more than I should, but one thing I know our types share is the occasional feeling of discovery and instant affection for the work of one artist or other. There are many greats of the past, but sometimes we find someone’s work that attracts us like few others. We want to know all we can… see all we can… and, yes, even copy all we can.

It is a universal impulse, usually prompted by the same small list of cartoonists. It is their “fault,” not our weaknesses – the essence of genius. It is dangerous to start a list, but George Herriman can be described this way. Cliff Sterrett. Gluyas Williams. Walt Kelly (try drawing like him…)

The list is objective and subjective. But one cartoonist who always inspires universal admiration is T S Sullivant. What makes him even more compelling to cartoon fans is that his work is relatively obscure.

(That will soon be solved. Fantagraphics Books will publish, any week now, an anthology of Sullivant’s work – black and white, and color; his animal drawings and ethnic lampoons – to which I have contributed artwork and a couple essays.) (I will pause until the Huzzahs die down over this news!)

When I was 10 I discovered three of his drawings in Sephen Becker’s book Comic Art in America, and properly was astonished. When I was older I got to know Steve and acquired his collection. Then I saw framed Sullivant originals on the wall of Rube Goldberg’s studio. I acquired two color originals (one reproduced here, an Easter parade of animals) from Rudolph Dirks’ sister Mae St Clair. And so on.

But my real connection – a motivation for my crazy life’s obsessive collecting forays – was through the pages of Judge and the old Life magazines; and the Hearst newspapers around 1903-1910. I have been blessed to have these complete runs in my collection, so my love affair with T S Sullivant was celebrated a thousand times over.

You will see, by these examples, his hallmarks – and his influences: large, exaggerated heads (an inherited approach, directly, from A B Frost; but McNair in Life and Wilder in Puck consciously copied Sullivant); humorous animals (countless imitators in the magazines – J S Pughe, Bob Addams, A Z Baker, et al.) His crosshatching was distinctive; his anatomy, even when comic, was flawless; his compositions were arresting. A hallmark of his mastery was his willingness to draw figures from behind – lending an air of realism to the comic – and always depict full figures. (So did Frost and other greats; E W Kemble was one cartoonist of the age who was content, or insecure, frequently to draw vignettes and avoid feet or solidity.)

Sullivant had two predominant thematic preoccupations: funny animals and funny humans. I am not being sarcastic; his animals with human poses and personalities, sometimes wardrobes, remind me of a description of Christ, “fully God and fully man.” Sullivant drew creatures that were fully animal yet fully human. His actual people were overwhelmingly of ethnic sorts. Today these cultural cliches and stereotyped imagery and traits make some people wince. But they are interesting reflections of the age; they are masterful cartoon creations; and, very simply, fun.

There are people, even cartoon scholars, who would censor these today. Believe me.

Thomas Starling Sullivant (1854-1926) and his pixilated pen sent me on many hunting trips through the decades, as a researcher and as a collector. I always had happy results. In the old NEMO Magazine I featured his work in the first issue; and a cover story in a subsequent issue. The revival of NEMO will highlight his work, too. Then there is the new Fantagraphics book, as per above. In his own lifetime there was a very early anthology published (Aesop up to date, Fables For Our Times) and a posthumous collection, Sullivant’s ABC Zoo.

Other explanations to other drawings here: the Easter parade was drawn as a decorative-piece for the front pages of Hearst Sunday comics for about a year. The political cartoons are a yet-unreprinted trove of his work; daily Hearst papers seldom survived, but Sullivant was hired to draw political cartoons… and they were great. The couple avoiding paparazzi are Alice Roosevelt Longworth leaving her wedding ceremony with her new husband Nicholas, the Congressman. And a “before and after” Sunday proof sheet, from a collection I purchased of vintage proofs from New York papers of the turn of the century. A Sullivant page was brittle, and cracked into several pieces. My cartoon-archive partner Jon Barli is a wizard at restoration and scanning… as seen here.

The best restoration, better than old proof sheets, would be of the reputation, more than the drawings, of T S Sullivant. A dream inherent in those early searches of mine is being fulfilled.

There was speculation that Sullivant often drew to other people’s gags; or that he submitted drawings and let editors supply captions or dialog – unusual, but freedom-embracing in its way. The great Simplicissimus cartoonist Thony did the same thing. Cartoonist Art Young told a story from Sullivant’s time in the Hearst bullpen. Of course it was kidding, not critical: F. Opper noted how frequently Sullivant scratched away at his drawing to make corrections. In those days, drawing papers were of such quality that one could do this and still apply ink lines that would not bleed. Opper kidded: “If Tom Sullivant scratched his head more and his paper less, he’d be a better cartoonist.”

Well, he was a better cartoonist, than almost any one on the block, before or since.



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