Sunday, October 9, 2011

THE WIZARD OF ID: Classic "Smart Stupidity"

I've been eagerly waiting for this book ever since it was announced almost two years ago. After several delays the publisher has finally come through, answering my cartoon nerd prayers--and hopefully enough prayers of other fans to merit a follow-up. Find it here and help the cause. Don't wait : order it online; I spent weeks driving around to book and comics stores in LA with no luck. Like most other sacred mainstays of The Small Room, it seems to be an acquired taste.

Brant Parker & Johnny Hart's WIZARD OF ID is probably my favorite long-running comic strip, after George Herriman's KRAZY KAT (sorry Snoopy!). Not nearly as poetic, of course, but existing in a fantasy world every bit as visually unique in it's own way. The land of Id resembles the caveman world of Johnny Hart's B.C. but the subtle differences lie in the distinctive cartooning of Brant Parker, who was Hart's mentor and later collaborator.  I can't quite pinpoint what it is that sets Brant Parker's artwork apart from Johnny Hart's (their styles are virtually identical) but Parker's ID has a slight edge over Hart's B.C. for my taste. Maybe the medieval setting gave him more to work with visually. Maybe it's because Parker was older, more experienced--he had worked in animation at Disney in the mid-1940's and his sense of posing / staging is flawless. He was more or less pioneering the style that Hart absorbed and ably limned nationally with B.C. around 1960. Of course, I like them both, but Parker's art is perhaps 2% more lumpy, goggle-eyed and more ferociously committed to cartoon big-nosedness, all qualities that I can't resist.

ID embodies a 1960's school of cartoon design I think of as "smart/stupid". To me, the "smart," modernized stylization that took the cartoon world by storm in the 1950's had a tendency to get too slick, too sterile and too just plain flat for it's own good.  By a decade later though, guys like Parker and Hart were seemingly satirizing that look with a looser, more spontaneous and "stupid" approach, almost as if they were trying to louse it up on purpose. And in doing so, they "warmed it up" in every sense of the word, even as they "dumbed it down", making it feel more organic, informal and light-hearted. I have to admit, that it's probably no coincidence that the smart/stupid style was in high gear in my kid-hood. Nostalgia no doubt plays a part in it...

All the same, it's a drawing style I kind of felt guilty for loving at the time. I was also nuts about classic animation of the 1930's and 40's, and that aesthetic seemed more respectable, if only because it seemed more obviously difficult. Maybe too the smart/stupid school was too contemporary and familiar to me, whereas the bygone work of the golden age animators seemed exotic by comparison. Happily, that's changed and I appreciate this kind of cartooning with unabashed admiration. Now when I sift through the pages of books like this one more than ever I marvel at the sheer rightness of the drawings. Settings, minor characters, even props give me as much pleasure as the main cast. For me, it's very close to the enjoyment of George Herriman's art, the Mount Everest of cartooning.

Despite the allusion to Freud in the title, the writing is not exactly cerebral but it has a post-modern sarcasm and deadpan quality that can still make me laugh. Giving the center stage to the King, its least like-able character, was an idea kind of ahead of it's time. By the year this volume's strips had been published, it was hard not to see Richard Nixon in the King's noxious personality. Even when not being specifically Nixon-like, he's still a ruthless selfish and un-redeemed a-hole; in short (heh-heh) a fink. There seems to have been an agreement made in the beginning by which (unlike other strips), these panels will never offer much in the way of a wistful, dewy-eyed sentiment, or anything weepy or apologetic. ID is a bleak, hard-knocks kingdom where gallows humor prevails, along with established stereotypes like funny drunkards, battle-axe wives, and smirking torturers. Some of these elements seem awkward and unenlightened subjects for humor today, but I can't help forgiving that. Believe it or not, it was hip at the time.

And the drawings, particularly around this era are sublime. They fill me with joy and envy. What more could I ask?

Three jeers for the Fink! Three cheers for the publishers! Hurry the next installment and don't spare the lumpy, cross-eyed, ski-footed, big-nosed horses!

7 comments:

Brubaker said...

Oh lawdy I love those 60s-70s Wizard of Id strips. I still have a bunch of those old paperbacks.

They're definitely amongst my cartooning influences (a year back Eddie Fitzgerald told me my drawings look like something from Johnny Hart's when I showed him my sketchbook)

Will Finn said...

Haha...I agree with Eddie! And yes, those first ten years or so are golden.

And in Id, everyone lives by the golden rule...

Alexandre Augusto said...

Hi Will!
Amazing post!!
I love the work of geniuses like Johnny Hart, Dik Browne, George Herriman, Ketcham.....
I bought the other books "The Best of Wizard of Id", "Growingold with BC" and "I Did it His Way"(amazing books!), and I've already ordered this new book!
Thank you Will, I love your blog and your stuff!

MARK CHRISTIANSEN said...

I'm also happy to see this collection of Id strips, but I'm perplexed as to why the publishers decided to neglect the first 6 or 7 years of the strip. I know that the strip switched syndicates at some point...could that be the reason?

Will Finn said...

thanks Alex and Mark: the syndicate change could be the reason. Also, like B.C., the very first strips I've seen are not quite in character... I know this publisher also did BEETLE BAILEY and HAGAR books that did not begin with year one. None of them have followed up with subsequent volumes tho :(

mark pudleiner said...

one of my favorites growing up :-)

Drawing my own strip was my first love... { not so much for all the syndicates as i still have all their rejection letters. But hey ... i was a kid ;-) }

Thanks Will for the heads up.

jptoons said...

I will definitely pick the book up!