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High-Low reviews Denys Wortman's New York

Updated June 21, 2012


WEDNESDAY, JUNE 13, 2012
A Day In The Life Of A City: Denys Wortman's New York
by Rob Clough
High-Low

One of my favorite comic art books from the past couple of years is Denys Wortman's New York, a bok that arose thanks to some digging by the head of the Center for Cartoon Studies, James Sturm. Wortman was one of those famously anonymous cartoonists from the first half of the twentieth century who produced a new one-panel comic four times a week for about thirty years. Other than a couple of collections with limited print runs, the strip mostly just disappeared from the public consciousness the way that so many strips are gone and forgotten, byproducts of an ephemeral form of media. Sturm was fortunate enough to get in touch with Wortman's son, who happened to be sitting on a treasure trove of over 5,000 originals by his father. Sturm, along with former student Brandon Elston, took a selection of these strips to form a narrative of sorts. The narrative doesn't follow a particular person, but rather the life of the city itself over the span of just one day. It's an extraordinary solution to the problem of how best to present this material in a way that doesn't drag.



What's interesting about this book is that the quality of the drawings is far better than a book that simply reprinted his work from newspapers or tear sheets would be. The book is shot directly from Wortman's pencils, which have an amazing power and sheer presence. This is a book about the teeming millions: young and old, rich and poor, working and unemployed, on the sidewalks or at the beach. It starts off in the morning, as housewives hang laundry outside their fire escapes and craggy old men rush to the subway. Young women rush to work as secretaries or factory workers, while middle-aged men try to find ways to collect on bills. Though the strips are not printed in anything resembling chronological order, Sturm & Elston still whip us across the city at work: the theater district, the garment district, maids, janitors, executives, and cooks at diners. With much of the strip running through the depression, Wortman shows us people desperate for aid and jobs. There's a jaw-dropping set of strips set in Coney Island, the vacation spot of choice for the working class. Though Wortman worked with a lot of photo references, he still does an uncanny job at capturing the spirit and the motion of so many people. The beach scenes are memorable because they depict huge crowds of people on the beach, on the boardwalk and under the boardwalk (with some poses that must have made the newspaper's censors a little nervous). He captures that sense of people wanting to pretend that they were somewhere exotic, even if every other New Yorker seemed to be there as well.

Wortman was also aces at drawing kids: out on the street, reading comics, running through fountains, and playing macabre games like "electric chair". His understanding of gesture and body language made every strip come alive, and his attention to detail like clothing is especially remarkable. This book is practically a class on New York fashions over a thirty year period, both of the rich and the working-class. We take a peek into classrooms, hospitals, doctor's offices, and beauty salons. We follow shopping trips and pretzel salesmen. We take a look inside the Museum of Natural History (that blue whale has been in the same place for a long time) and see the game from behind home plate at the Polo Grounds. We see the city in the sun and in the rain, go out on the town to dinner and the theater/movies/opera. We follow sailors going dancing and attend many a wild, late-night party. Finally, we see people make their way home, including one man on an empty subway who nonetheless can't help but stand up out of sheer habit.

Most of the captions to the images were written either by Wortman's wife or someone else; they were more capstones to the images than real gags. Some of them don't even try to be very funny--just accurate. The captions help provide some context and flavor for the images, though most of them could easily stand on their own. What I like most about Wortman's drawing is just how intuitive it is. He seems to know just when to use his charcoals to add some fuzz and shading to an image, and when to sharpen his pencil and let certain kinds of details pop off the page. These are not photorealist drawings, nor are they entirely expressionistic. These captions carry their own sense of reality, thrusting the reader into the image and giving one a true sense of what it might have been like to been in that particular moment, to see a wide range of actions unfolding in front of your eyes. The mass of humanity he depicts in page after page creates an imaginary buzz, as the reader imagines what all those people together must sound like. It's a rare art book that turns out to be a page-turner, but that's certainly the case with Denys Wortman's New York, and that's a tribute to the talent of the artist and the vision of the editors.
 
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Denys Wortman

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  DEATH-RAY, ONWARD TOWARDS OUR NOBLE DEATHS, WORTMAN'S NEW YORK make AV Club's Best list!

Updated December 29, 2011


December 29, 2011
Noel Murray

Top Three Reprints

1. Daniel Clowes, The Death-Ray (D&Q)
Previously available as an unwieldy oversized magazine, the contents of Eightball #23 are now the graphic novel they always should’ve been, packaging Daniel Clowes’ meltdown of superhero mythology under a sturdy hardcover. Broken into one- or two-page chapters—drawn in a range of styles, from simple cartoons to naturalistic sketches to full-scale, dynamic action layouts—The Death-Ray is narrated by Andy, a tense, middle-aged loner who recalls his high-school years in the late ’70s, when he was a scrawny outsider who acquired superhuman strength and a weapon capable of disintegrating its targets without leaving a trace. With a keenly developed sense of justice and no super-villains to battle, Andy and his proto-slacker sidekick began a covert terror campaign, directed at the jerks in their lives. The Death-Ray can be read as a critique of American foreign policy, or a kiss-off to superheroes, but it’s also another of Clowes’ keen dissections of teen ennui, with the details of a young man’s first cigarette and his first punk-rock album serving as more than just coming-of-age signifiers. In the devastating final two pages, Clowes returns to Andy in the present day and sucks the air out of the piece, as fireworks pop and the hero explains that the petty grudges of young adulthood never fade, but resolve themselves into a system of values, guiding the way the world is run.

3. Shigeru Mizuki, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (D&Q)
Based on Shigeru Mizuki’s memories of fighting in World War II, the 1973 graphic novel Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths combines detailed, often beautiful illustrations of small Pacific islands with characters rendered far less elaborately, setting up the climactic suicide mission of the book’s title, where men become little more than meat. A character dies roughly every 10 pages in this 368-page book, typically in ways that are more blackly comic than tragic. Soldiers get shot while sneaking off to extract a few drops of water from tree roots, or they choke while trying to carry fish in their mouths. Those are the kind of quirky details that could only come from personal experience, and they’re mixed in with page after page of soldiers dealing with hunger, illness, horniness, and the dehumanizing abuse from their superiors. It’s hard to picture the Imperial Army as the robotic fanatics of legend after reading Onward, with its mass of rounded faces all yearning for an extra spoonful of rice and one last shot at getting laid before they charge into the abyss.

Top Five Archival Collections

5. Denys Wortman, Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait Of The City In The 1930s And 1940s (D&Q)
Denys Wortman drew cartoons and illustrations for multiple New York magazines and newspapers between the ’20s and ’50s, but never became as well known as some of his peers, perhaps because his dense panels, sketchy lines and whimsical captions lost some charm when reduced to a quarter-page. The James Sturm and Brandon Elston-edited Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait Of The City In The 1930s and 1940s arranges hundreds of Wortman originals—saved in a shed by his son—into a tour through the city over the course of a single day. The impressions of city life over a half-century ago are invaluable, but even better, Denys Wortman’s New York features one panel per large-sized page, which does due justice to the artist’s detailed, dynamic drawings of fire escapes, busy lunch counters, jumping dance halls, and dimly lit parlors.
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Daniel Clowes
Denys Wortman
Shigeru Mizuki

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Denys Wortman's New York
The Death-Ray
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths




MAKE ME A WOMAN and DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK make The Vulture's Top 10 Comics of 2010

Updated March 11, 2011


MAKE ME A WOMAN

A charming collection of autobiographical stories, jokes, and sketches by a clever and honest young cartoonist with a keen eye for her own foibles.


DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK

An astonishing rediscovery: a collection of enormous, beautiful single-panel comics by the long-forgotten Gotham cartoonist that serves as a revelatory guide to the vibrant working class of thirties and forties New York.
 
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Vanessa Davis
Denys Wortman

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Make Me A Woman
Denys Wortman's New York




  SEE Magazine plunges into DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK

Updated March 11, 2011


What a headlong plunge into a mad, vibrant whirlpool this cartoon collection is.

Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 1930s and 1940s celebrates the titular artist, who was not only a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post, Life Magazine, and The New Yorker, but also produced over 9,000 drawings for the New York World newspaper over 30 years, from the 1920s to the 1950s.

As art historian Robert W. Snyder points out in an introduction, Wortman spanned eras. He captured, in visual form, New York from the Depression through World War II to the post-war boom. Like the Impressionists, he was a chronicler of his time and place; his collected work is a remarkable time capsule.

If Wortman was never recognized by art historians, as editor James Sturm declares in an afterword, then this volume demands attention simply on that level. Yet in no way is Wortman’s work drily archival — it pulsates with vitality. Its overarching subject is nothing less than the Life of the City.

There seems no social class, milieu or activity left untouched by Wortman: his subjects include men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds, the High and the Low, at both work and play. (One glaring omission is the shortgage and depictions of African-Americans, who appear only rarely as The Help.)

And we see them everywhere imaginable — in apartments, penthouses, bars, restaurants, rooftops, offices, the subway, workshops, clinics, hospitals, the theatre (both backstage and otherwise), diners, soup kitchens, the docks, construction sites, beaches, classrooms, train stations, movie palaces and the circus. The breadth of setting evokes the familiar saying about a million stories.

Appropriately then, Wortman’s incredible draftsmanship breathe monumentality into his tableaus. Some of this most dramatic compositions involve high and low angles of women on fire escapes — or one awesome image of window washers descending in front of a massive clock tower face.

In Wortman’s city, the epic is everyday. Sometimes it’s as simple as incorporating architectural details like Neo-Classical arches and soaring skyscrapers into the frame. The book’s larger-format presentation is thus fitting; as Sturm notes, Wortman’s art is best appreciated before reduction.

Yet Wortman’s own reductive powers lend his compositions focused power.

Like Joe Sacco (Footnotes in Gaza), Wortman adroitly balances realistic, observable details with the economy demanded of cartoon art on the page; never do his scenes seem busy or overcrowded. There’s a beautiful symmetry to how he orders the elements of every frame.

As Sturm points out, Wortman’s cartoons don’t’ function like typical, one-panel, captioned gag cartoons: rather, the art functions as completely independent. Wortman’s would draw first, and supply captions later; the panels are hence more akin to New Yorker caption contest winners.

(Of course, the contrast is sometimes precisely from where the humour derives, as when a woman tells a gin-blossomed panhandler: “What! Don’t you know coffee is bad for you?”)

One should also consider Wortman’s approach to faces: they’re the one thing not presented realistically, but rather as caricature. They’re the most direct visual link to the comical captions, slyly undercutting the bold visuals to remind us of humanity’s inherent clownishness.

Denys Wortman’s New York not only makes the case for Wortman as an important twentieth-century artist, as Sturm argues — but also for the tremendous, central importance of comics to our shared visual history over the past hundred years.

One need not be either an art or cartooning aficionado, however, to powerfully engage with this volume. Like good fiction, it pulls us through a breathless tour of a fully realized, fully real world.

This is a New York of flesh and blood as much as concrete and steel. And its chest rises and falls with the breath of life.
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James Sturm
Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




HeroesOnline reviews DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK

Updated March 4, 2011


Among the staff members at Heroes I’m likely the one with the least background in visual art. My creative tendencies tend more toward music and the written word. Strange then that my first review of 2011 concerns one of 2010′s most dynamic art books. Denys Wortman’s New York is a fascinating book however you look at it. For me, the real hook of this publication lies in its stranger than fiction backstory. Noted cartoonist James Sturm (James Sturm’s America: Gods, Gold, and Golems) apparently came across a single strip of Wortman’s, grew curious, and set out to find out more about this largely forgotten artist. As luck would have it Sturm was able to find Wortman’s son who had a shed full of his father’s art that was in danger of succumbing to the elements. Sturm’s good timing led to our good fortune.

On one hand, the fact that an artist of Wortman’s caliber was nearly lost to the ages is a pox on the comics community. How could the industry forget work like this? On the other hand, it might be a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just as you have to possess luck along with talent to break into this industry, I guess to some degree the same can hold true for cementing one’s legacy. Wortman lived and worked in New York City in the ’30′s and ’40′s, and most of the strips in this book act as a document of those times and places. There are sarcastic one liners being lobbed back and forth from women out on their apartment balconies, visages of streets with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles packed together like sardines, and charcoal renderings of Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster.

Was Wortman trying to consciously play the role of zeitgeist-catcher? I’m not sure if any artist of any genre can really achieve that measure by his own will. On the off chance that he succeeds, it usually falls upon future generations to determine the successes or failings of a work. More likely, Wortman was creating these strips for his own pleasure as much as anyone else’s. And somewhere between the conversations and the gags, the bricks and the pushcarts, we as readers in 2011 open up Wortman’s book as if it were a time capsule. And like Canadian cartoonist Seth’s fictional story It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, sometimes we inadvertently stumble upon the work of an artist that grabs us, sits us down, and instantly etches itself upon our consciousness. So it has been for me in my encounters with Denys Wortman’s New York.
 
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James Sturm
Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




  DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Updated March 4, 2011


If the articles and stories of the great New Yorker writers of the first half of the previous century -- Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling and, especially, John McNulty -- had been illustrated, no more appropriate artist could have been chosen for them than Denys Wortman.

He captured in line, white space and shadow the lives of ordinary New Yorkers that the writers captured in words.

You might ask, Denys Who? Mr. Wortman's cartoons and illustrations, for all their remarkable skill, are nearly forgotten today. Yet for three decades he produced a panel cartoon six days a week for the New York World and Sun and did illustrations for other publications, including The New Yorker.

His feature, "Metropolitan Movies," ran from 1924-54; this terrific collection of cartoons focuses on 1930-45, a period of cultural, political and visual continuity for New York, particularly the Lower East Side.

The Museum of the City of New York is currently exhibiting a selection of Mr. Wortman's cartoons titled "Denys Wortman Rediscovered: Drawings for the World-Telegram and Sun, 1930-1953."

The show runs through March 20 (www.mcny.org).

In it are careworn housewives chatting on fire escapes or on adjacent buildings, young women sunning themselves on tar-covered rooftops, con men, sandwich-board men, sailors, store owners haggling on the streets with customers, front-stoop loungers, Coney Island fun-seekers, the out-of-work, embarrassed "relief" applicants, and many more.

They are rendered with superb draftsmanship -- strong lines that swoop and slash but are controlled, not careless. Like the artists of the Ashcan School, he has observed everything closely. He gives the viewer real people, real faces, real situations.

They are called "cartoons" but are really slices of life, or snapshots. While nearly all are humorous, the humor is gentle and charming; he did not strive for a joke.

"I try to draw contemporary life," Mr. Wortman said. Captions were often added afterward, sometimes suggested by others.

Women predominate, from housewives sitting in kitchens next to their Glenwood-style gas ranges to society ladies in nightclubs. A wife, sitting with her husband at a stage play, says, "I say things like that at home, but you don't laugh at them."

A young woman in jeans says to her mother at a sewing machine, "Mother, I wish you'd make that evening dress of mine so darn seductive that everybody'll say I wouldn't let my daughter wear that."

And occasionally the melancholy, the touching, the sad. A little girl to her exhausted mother with her face down on the kitchen table: "Don't cry, be little, and I'll be your mother."

At heart, however, what Mr. Wortman caught was the feel of a time and a place -- and its inhabitants.
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James Sturm
Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




The Onion AV Club's round up features SCENES, MID-LIFE AND DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK!

Updated March 4, 2011


Cartoonist Adrian Tomine was one of the great success stories of the ’90s mini-comics scene, wowing fans of DIY pop-art with both his breezy autobiographical strips and piercing literary short stories. Over the past decade, Tomine’s done well for himself as an illustrator and graphic novelist, but while he’s been performing on bigger stages, he’s done less of the kind of work that made him such an early standout. That’s what makes Tomine’s Scenes From An Impending Marriage (Drawn & Quarterly) such a treat. Originally written and drawn as a gift for the guests at Tomine’s wedding, Scenes From An Impending Marriage consists of short, funny vignettes about all the chores of getting hitched, like making an invitation list, hiring a DJ, and striving to look presentable. The book is an unexpected return to the mini-comics form—not unlike a serious rock band stepping back from concept albums to knock out a fun 45 again.
The expanded, hardbound Scenes is still small in size, which befits the light tone and the spare, character-focused art. And though the book isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, neither is it completely frivolous. Among its strengths: Scenes From An Impending Marriage accurately captures the peculiar blend of public and private that marks the beginning of a marriage. The betrothed couple is overwhelmed with thousands of tiny details, nearly all of which have more to do with how they’ll be perceived by their families and friends than with the couple’s actual preferences. (Throughout the book Tomine shows himself doing things he wouldn’t ordinarily do to prepare for the wedding, all while muttering, “This nonsense stops the minute we’re married.”) Tomine includes scenes of him and his fiancée dealing with their guilt over wasting so much money on a party they’re barely going to get to enjoy, and scenes where he imagines their friends greeting the news of the happy occasion with a shrug. It all feels very honest, and though Scenes From An Impending Marriage isn’t exactly revelatory, in a way that’s to be expected, because a newlywed’s rites of passage are familiar by design. If anything, it’s reassuring to know that even an artist as talented as Tomine had to suffer through the same crap as any other young groom.


Joe Ollman’s graphic novel Mid-Life (D&Q), on the other hand, does feel revelatory, because the protagonist’s situation is so particular and painful. The hero, John, is a 40-year-old art director for a general-interest magazine who finds reasons every day to lose his cool: his job, the two snippy grown daughters from his failed first marriage, or his exhausted new wife and their toddler son. When John becomes obsessed with a Laurie Berkner-like kiddie-music star named Sherri Smalls, he risks his family, his career, and his self-image to meet with her while on a business trip to New York. But even without the potential affair clouding his thoughts, John would likely be on the brink of self-destruction, because he’s constantly depressed about how much of his youth he’s squandered on a lifestyle he never really wanted.
Ollman (who previously wrote and drew the Doug Wright-winning story collection This Will All End In Tears) works here with cramped nine-panel pages, conveying both the drudgery and the clutter of John’s life. Ollman’s character designs verge on the grotesque at times, and his perspectives on both the children’s entertainment industry and middle-class family life seem overly influenced by clichéd notions of “cool” and “square.” (Sherri describes her own fans as “an audience of spoiled kiddies and their yuppie parents,” which is reductive even for a character who’s not happy with her career choices, while one of John’s biggest worries is that his son will never know that he was once a hip, vital guy.) But Mid-Life is remarkably nuanced within its rigid parameters. Ollman is a whiz with facial expressions and body language, depicting emotions as varied as uncontrolled rage, guilt, self-pity, and affection with just the right placement of an arm or an eyebrow. Plus, his characters are genuinely aware of how many of their decisions are based on bullshit obsessions with self-image.
What makes Mid-Life work so well both as fiction and as comics is the way Ollman has John and Sherri engage in running dialogues with themselves, with the better parts of their nature represented in a caption while the worst parts come out in what they actually say and do. The book approximates what it’s like to be at the halfway point of life, with memories and past regrets bleeding into daily interactions, even as middle-aged folks retain enough optimism about the future to keep pushing ahead. The second half of Mid-Life considers whether John’s flirtation with Sherri counts as an example of that optimism or as proof that he’s given up. And as Ollman pushes toward the resolution of his maybe-romance, his raw-looking art and frank writing build tension to rival any Hitchcock film.


Denys Wortman drew cartoons and illustrations for multiple New York magazines and newspapers between the ’20s and ’50s, but never became as well known as some of his peers, perhaps because his dense panels, sketchy lines, and whimsical captions lost some charm when reduced to a quarter-page. The James Sturm and Brandon Elston-edited Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait Of The City In The 1930s and 1940s (D&Q) arranges hundreds of Wortman originals—saved in a shed by his son—into a tour through the city over the course of a single day. The impressions of city life over a half-century ago are invaluable, but even better, Denys Wortman’s New York features one panel per large-sized page, which does due justice to the artist’s detailed, dynamic drawings of fire escapes, busy lunch counters, jumping dance halls, and dimly lit parlors.
 
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Featured artists

Adrian Tomine
Denys Wortman
Joe Ollmann

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Denys Wortman's New York
Mid-Life
Scenes from an Impending Marriage




  PopMatters gives DENYS WORTMAN a 9 out of 10!

Updated February 18, 2011


In a single panel a street vendor, rendered in the most basic details, looks up at a woman standing on a fire escape. A cart of something indistinct is sketched behind him, his hands are on his hips. The woman says to him, “I have to come down to buy them, you’ll have to come down in your prices.” The man is only a couple of circles, with dots and lines for his features, shading for his clothes. The reader has to have to dive into the image, walk the street a little and smell the flowers or produce on his cart, the salted meats in the nearby butcher shop, before reaching the vendor. The background is mostly simple lines or smudges, but the eye fills in the missing details, searches for those too subtle to see at first, and is consistently rewarded.

Thus rendered and imagined, the single panel becomes an entire story, its modest dimensions an entire world. The story is the day to day life of New Yorkers in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the world is Denys Wortman’s.

Wortman worked as a cartoonist for New York’s World Telegram and Sun, among other papers, from the ‘20s until his death in the 1958. Wortman’s work has remained under appreciated and largely unknown to readers in the years since his death, but this book by editors James Sturm and Brandon Elston should change that. Sturm, author of The Golem’s Mighty Swing and cofounder/director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, began this project after happening upon an out of print copy of Wortman’s Mopey Dick and the Duke, a collection of his work featuring two hobos that were recurring characters in his “Metropolitan Movies” strip. Sturm contact Wortman’s son, and discovered an archive of the artist’s work and correspondence, much of which was stored in less than desirable conditions.

The book is presented as a single day in New York City, but there’s no central narrative that ties the pieces together, and many of the strips were published years apart from one another. The main thread is the city itself, and her people. Wortman’s New York is the classic version of the city that lives in the imaginations of those of us who have never lived there. There are crowded streets and beaches, people sunbathing on rooftops in the summer, hanging out on the stoop in front of tenement buildings, businessmen barely scraping by as the Depression rages on. Wortman’s soft lines give every image an unfinished quality, keeping their story in motion rather than freezing it in time.

Some panels are staggering in their use of perspective, with buildings rising to the sky and fire escapes jutting out from the brick facades in precise proportions. Wortman’s captions, too, are marvels of construction, each just a sentence or two that captures not just the action in the image, but everything that came before and after. In one panel a woman, standing above her friend on the fire escape outside her apartment, says, “I haven’t had a vacation since I was married, except for those times I was operated on.” It’s a mildly humorous remark that hints at an unknown tragedy, the kind of thing that might create an awkward silence, even between good friends.

Many of Wortman’s cartoons were drawn with no captions in mind. That job often fell to his wife, Hilda, who also took countless reference photos used in his work. In his essay at the beginning of the book, Robert W. Snyder writes that Wortman’s work portrays the vital role women played in every facet of life in New York City, a idea further reinforced by Hilda Wortman’s involvement in her husband’s work.

Sturm notes that, though many of the cartoons are funny, humor wasn’t the primary intent. There are scenes of elderly couples, their faces lined with age and worry, wondering how they’ll pay all their bills, and the sacrifices families had to make during the hardest years of the ‘30s. There are scenes of the city’s nightlife, children at play and people standing in bread lines. It’s a staggering experience, much like living in the city at the time must have been.

Another favorite is a drawing of two women knitting as they ride the subway to work. “It’s ten rows to the office and half a sleeve from there to Harry’s.” One imagines Wortman and Hilda walking around the city, sketchbook and camera at the ready, writing down scraps of conversation, getting lost in the city. They were listening to people, getting to know them bit by bit. This book has the positive effect of making one feel bad, at times; bad for popping in the ear buds or talking on the phone, bad for ignoring the rich, wide world that’s right in front of us, each step of our journey, each day.

Rating: 9/10
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Featured artists

James Sturm
Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




Denys Wortman's New York on the Newsarama Blog

Updated February 9, 2011


Review: Denys Wortman's New York
Michael C. Lorah
February 9, 2011


Denys Wortman’s New York
Written & Illustrated by Denys Wortman
Edited by James Sturm & Brandon Elston
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Collecting nearly 300 drawings of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s, Denys Wortman’s New York accomplishes many things – not the least of which is renewing interest in a nearly forgotten cartoonist. Wortman spent thirty years drawing cartoons for New York World, yet until just a few months ago, his work seemed relegated to history’s forgotten file folder. Fortunately, James Sturm – cartoonist and proprietor of the Center for Cartoon Studies – uncovered some of Wortman’s work, tracked down the cartoonist’s son, and found a massive trove of illustrations and drawings.


In Denys Wortman’s New York, readers are treated to page after page of nuanced pencil drawings – full of details which would never have reproduced in newsprint – depicting New York city in the middle of the 20th century. Wortman touches on most subjects, though he avoids anything that would court too much controversy. Dating, paying the bills, days at Coney Island and the beach, and neighborhood gossip are just a few of the subjects touched upon. Each illustration gets a full page, with a hand-written caption at the bottom. Captions range from humorous to tear-jerking – these weren’t necessarily gag cartoons. Wortman comments on a wide range of topics facing New Yorkers, including the omnipresent Depression that wore on the city during the first of the two decades covered in this volume.

While the captions are interesting and often quite insightful, the artwork stands out as the reason to own Denys Wortman’s New York. Simply put, Wortman was a master. Each drawing is carefully composed – using areas of light and dark, as well as compositional lines – to guide the reader through the densely packed details (from rooftop vistas to packed beaches), reaching the heart of each scene. Delicate pencil shadings add texture and nuance to each illustration.

Denys Wortman’s New York not only preserves the work of a nearly forgotten cartoonist – the book showcases gorgeous illustrations and carefully observed glimpses into the routines of urban American life. This work should not only be remembered; it should be studied, because it will be a highlight of anybody’s comics library.
 
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Denys Wortman

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  Nipper, Picture This, and Denys Wortman make Entertainment Weekly's best of 2010 list

Updated February 9, 2011


The Ten Best Graphic Novels and Comics of 2010
December 30, 2010
by Ken Tucker


It was a good year for a wide array of comics collections and graphic novels. From superheroes to memoirs of old age to vintage reprints, there was something for anyone — which is to say, everyone — interested in visual storytelling. In no particular order:

• Picture This, Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly) Barry’s follow-up to her remarkable What It Is is, once again, a combination how-to book, a memoir, and an inspirational book of the highest order. Picture This will tap into the artist you may have hidden in the recesses in your soul, encouraging you to pick up pencil or paintbrush and begin to enjoy the pleasure and thrill of making art yourself. “You move your hand and you scribble all you want and it feels very good,” she writes. Barry speaks the truth, always.

• How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden (Vertigo/DC)
A memoir of a trip this left-leaning Jew takes to Israel, determined to have her ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict confirmed. Of course, things turn out more complicated than Glidden had imagined. So do her deceptively simple line drawings, their delicate watercolor shadings, and the thinking that informs the vivid dialogue in a graphic nonfiction novel of subtlety and understated wit.

• Nipper 1963-64, Doug Wright (Drawn & Quarterly) These Canadian newspaper strips, free of dialogue but full of vivid line drawings, depict the mischievous adventures of a little boy. Wright, a stay-at-home cartoonist and father, doubtlessly drew quite literally on personal observation and experience, but the fluidity of his inks and his storytelling makes this an all-ages special.

• Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit, adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke (IDW) Cooke, whose best-known work has probably been for DC Comics (The New Frontier, his reinterpretation of The Spirit), proves again that he can capture in pictures the terse storytelling of Donald Westlake, who used the pen name Richard Stark for his brutally succinct hard-boiled novels featuring the canny thief Parker. Adaptations of novels generally tend to concentrate on getting the plot and dialogue down accurately, but Cooke is working on a higher level: He wants to be sure you experience the cold amorality of the Parker stories. He does so by drawing Parker as a series of sharp, flat angles, and by avoiding film noir visual clichés in precisely the same way Westlake/Stark avoided hard-boiled-fiction clichés.

• A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, Moto Hagio (Fantagraphics) Ostensibly Japanese comics aimed at the adolescent-girl market, these so-called Ten Stories of the Human Heart are lush mixtures of dreamlike imagery and realistic depictions of young people’s yearnings, hopes, reveries, and fears. Gathering representative work from four decades of publication, A Drunken Dream exerts a hypnotic pull on the reader, Moto Hagio knows both her commercial audience and her ideal audience — which is to say, the world.

• Batwoman: Elegy, Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams (DC Comics) The year’s most intriguing superhero art came from Williams, who shattered the conventional arrangement of panels in a comic book, drawing in the broken shards in a manner that suited the fractured consciousness of Batwoman. Writer Rucka gave her a worthy foe, an insane criminal, Alice, who leads a cult of crime. This hardcover collects six issues of Detective Comics, and demonstrates just how far adventurous creators can venture the erroneously perceived boundaries of commercial comics.

• Denys Wortman’s New York (Drawn & Quarterly) Probably the historical discovery of the year in comics, this volume — subtitled “Portrait of the City in the 1930s and 1940s,” edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, offers a sumptuous gathering of one-panel, pencil-and-ink drawings that summon up an earlier era of city life. Working for The New Yorker, Life, and, most prolifically, the World newspaper, Wortman incorporated overheard and imagined snatches of dialogue among working-class citizens and dowagers, rushing commuters and toff businessmen. No one is ridiculed; everyone is placed in a context that gives each life dignity. Which is not to say Wortman’s cartoons are without a vinegary tang: In the midst of the Depression, a pet-store owner is shown responding to a woman who’s come in bearing her pet bird in a cage. “Listen, lady,” he says brusquely, “your bird ain’t sick. Can you show me anybody today feels like singin’ every single morning when he gets up?” Timely as ever.

• Special Exits, Joyce Farmer (Fantagraphics) A long-form narrative about the decline of her parents’ health, Special Exits avoids cheap pity and piousness by doing what any good art should: focusing on specifics — the ways in which Farmer’s parents slide into old age and ill health; the care they require and receive. That this is also a portrait of a strong marriage is an added benefit. Frank, never shying away from the awkward indignities of aging, Special Exits illuminates two lives, as well as that of the author’s.

• The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW) A seasonal book that can be read all year ’round, The Great Treasury collected tales originally published in comic-book form by superb cartoonists such as Walt Kelly (Pogo), John Stanley (Little Lulu), and Richard Scarry. If you’re looking for a picture book that offers alternatives to familiar holiday tales, you can’t do better than this sturdy volume, with its stories including “Santa and the Pirates” and “Christmas Comes to the Woodland.”

• Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980, edited by Dan Nadel (Abrams) As with Nadel’s eye-boggling previous anthology, Art Out of Time, this thick book offers an array of artist-writers both famous and little-known. What they all shared was employment on the more disreputable fringes of the comics industry, bending familiar genres (superheroes, horror, thriller) to their will. Nadel again demonstrates his knack for selecting mainstream work that can look like the dreams of surrealism, or the most brutish of art brut, or the wooziest of romanticism. You’re summoned beneath the spell of this work.

What graphic novels and comics caught your eye and mind in 2010?
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Featured artists

Lynda Barry
Doug Wright
Denys Wortman

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Picture This
Denys Wortman's New York




ForeWord Reviews recommends DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK and EDEN

Updated December 21, 2010


Still More Gift-Giving Ideas for Comics Fans

by Peter Gutiérrez

Certainly comics and trade paperback-style graphic novels are more affordable than other reading material you might give this holiday season. But what about when you want to go all out and spoil someone (maybe yourself?) with comics-related books that are as substantial and artful as anything else you’ll find on the shelves? In my Nov/Dec ForeWord column, I suggested some gift-worthy, archived editions and art books. Here are a few more titles that are sure to put a smile on the face of a discerning comics reader.

Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 1930s and 1940s (Drawn and Quarterly, 978-1-77046-013-3) From all accounts, longtime newspaper cartoonist Wortman was a class act, and in this book, editors James Sturm and Brandon Elston have showcased much of his nearly forgotten work in a suitably classy presentation. The penciling in these full-page, single-panel cartoons (Wortman disliked the term “gag”) is wondrously evocative in its own right—clever captions that capture timeless human foibles are a bonus.

...

Eden (Drawn and Quarterly, 978-1-77046-008-9) Finally, a collection to recommend for young readers as well as adults. In fact, it’s the adults who may respond most powerfully to the simple wisdom contained in the pages of this whimsical fantasy; kids will just love how cute and funny the story is. Previously published as web comics, Pablo Holmberg’s work already has the feel of a classic.
 
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Pablo Holmberg
Denys Wortman

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Eden




  New York Magazine picks MAKE ME A WOMAN and DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK as Top Ten Comics of 2010

Updated December 14, 2010


The Top Ten Comics of 2010

6. Make Me a Woman by Vanessa Davis

A charming collection of autobiographical stories, jokes, and sketches by a clever and honest young cartoonist with a keen eye for her own foibles.

...

3. Denys Wortman’s New York Edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston

An astonishing rediscovery: a collection of enormous, beautiful single-panel comics by the long-forgotten Gotham cartoonist that serves as a revelatory guide to the vibrant working class of thirties and forties New York.
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Vanessa Davis
Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




Dan Nadel at Comics Comics gives thanks for DENYS WORTMAN

Updated November 30, 2010


Giving Thanks for Denys Wortman

by Dan Nadel
Comics Comics
November 26, 2010

Happy Turkey time. Here are some hobo drawings, just to keep it real! Just kidding. Well, not sort of. Anyhow! I have already professed my love for James Sturm and Brandon Elston’s new book, Denys Wortman’s New York. It’s maybe my favorite book of the season. So I asked James if he’d be willing to share some drawings that didn’t make it in the book and he sent these 10 killers along with this missive:

“I love these hobo drawings. Wortman has an obvious affection for them. It’s easy to imagine Wortman, like most cartoonists, as a homebody, and to tramp around vicariously through his characters must have felt liberating. Mopey Dick and the Duke were at the height of their popularity, not surprisingly, during the great depression. The hobos were based on Wortman himself (the Duke) and an old sea captain, William Morris Barnes (Mopey). Hilda Wortman met Barnes in NYC in the mid-twenties and was fascinated by the old captain’s stories—so much so that she recorded his history that was published in 1929, “When Ships Were Ships and Not Tin Pots.”

Barnes was also a painter, creating canvasses of ships at sea which he would sell to the Wortmans. According to Wortman VIII, after a sale Barnes would disappear for weeks on end and go on a bender. When he ran dray he made and sold another painting. Wortman VIII still has a few hanging in his home. Below is a drawing of Barnes by Milt Gross himself.

Some of these drawings show off Wortman’s great feel for organic forms. He did rural as well as he did urban. In addition to the NYC work, He also did a lot drawings of New England, the country side, and documented trips to Europe and Central America. Most of these have yet to be scanned.”
 
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Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




  The National Post recommends DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK for the literati on your holiday gift list

Updated November 30, 2010


Better thread than read: Bookish clothing, accessories and other presents for the literati on your list

by Mark Medley
National Post

...

Gotham sketches

We’re currently reading Mark Helprin’s brilliant 1983 novel Winter’s Tale, so New York City is on our minds. That’s why we’re so smitten with Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 1930s and 1940s. Wortman, a cartoonist for newspapers like the Sun and the World Telegram, has been pretty much forgotten, a fact editors James Sturm and Brandon Elston — along with publisher Drawn & Quarterly — want to change. This book collects almost 300 of his marvellous sketches and illustrations, which capture a city as it was and never will be again. $31.95, drawnandquarterly.com
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Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




Dan Nadel recommends DENYS WORTMAN'S NEW YORK

Updated November 25, 2010


These Guys…

by Dan Nadel
Comics Comics
November 19, 2010

...

A recommendation: I love Denys Wortman’s New York. It’s a beautifully produced book of this forgotten cartoonist’s vivid NYC-observed cartoons. The drawings are nuanced and yet amazingly muscular and gritty. I’d never seen the work before and found myself completely absorbed in Wortman’s bygone world. Great drawings and a great historical presentation by James Sturm and Brandon Elston. Kudos to D&Q for supporting such a wonderful project. There is a an exhibition on now at The Museum of the City of New York, which I look forward to checking out asap.
 
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Denys Wortman

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Denys Wortman's New York




  The New York Times features DENYS WORTMAN's NEW YORK

Updated November 23, 2010


Gotham Chronicle: Sharp Eye, and Pencil

by Carol Kino
The New York Times
Arts & Culture
November 17, 2010

IF there is a single constant in the creative world, it is that fame has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight. One prime example is the cartoonist Denys Wortman, who from 1924 to 1954 contributed six drawings a week to The New York World and its successors.

His feature, “Metropolitan Movies,” was admired for its strikingly naturalistic portrayal of daily life in Gotham. Using a single panel and a conversational caption, Mr. Wortman adroitly summoned up an entirely believable world of housewives talking across fire escapes, girls in the subway hashing over last night’s date, and men and women trying to make a buck in diners, offices, music halls and factories — or struggling to keep afloat during the Great Depression. Mr. Wortman’s drawings were also beautifully composed and finely worked, a legacy of his art school years, when he studied alongside future Ashcan school painters like Edward Hopper and George Bellows, and with their guru Robert Henri.

Even then “there was nothing quite like it,” said the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who enjoyed the drawings as a boy. “His work didn’t seem studied. It was as if you were looking out the window — or my window in the Bronx.” And because it was syndicated nationwide (as “Everyday Movies”), Mr. Wortman’s world spread far beyond the Hudson.

But in 1958, four years after his retirement, Mr. Wortman died of a heart attack. By then cartooning had become character-driven and graphically streamlined (think of Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts”) while art was ruled by the Abstract Expressionists. And when The World’s successor The World-Telegram and Sun folded, he was as forgotten as yesterday’s fish wrap.

Now, however, Mr. Wortman is back in the limelight. On Friday, the Museum of the City of New York opened “Denys Wortman Rediscovered: Drawings for The World-Telegram and Sun, 1930-1953,” a major retrospective that runs through March 20. And this month, the graphic novel publisher Drawn & Quarterly came out with “Denys Wortman’s New York,” the first collection of his work in nearly 50 years.

His resurrection has been aided by the devotion of his only child, Denys Wortman VIII, who since 1998 has maintained an extensive archive on the Web site dwortman.com.

But the real push came from the graphic novelist James Sturm (“The Golem’s Mighty Swing” and “Market Day”) who happened across one of Mr. Wortman’s books four years ago and made it his mission to resuscitate his career. It was Mr. Sturm, also the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., who brought the work to Drawn & Quarterly and proposed the show to the museum.

When he saw Mr. Wortman’s art, “I was blown away,” he said. “I was also surprised that I had never heard of somebody so accomplished and prolific. For me he was this missing link between cartooning and early-20th-century fine art.”

The line between cartooning and fine art seems to have been even blurrier in Mr. Wortman’s time than it is today. The healthy newspaper and magazine market allowed a painter like Bellows to support himself as an illustrator and an illustrator like Frederick Burr Opper to make it as a cartoonist, even as Henri urged newspaper illustrators like John Sloan and William Glackens to turn their talents to oil painting.

Mr. Wortman, born in Saugerties, N.Y., in 1887, grew up at exactly the right moment to capitalize on this golden age, but it took him years to figure out how. Although he loved drawing, he initially studied engineering. (“There’s very few that can survive being artists,” explained his son, a Boston stockbroker.) When he finally entered the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, he pursued painting rather than his longtime love, drawing cartoons, to please his mother. Mr. Wortman did achieve some small success: he contributed a brushily worked Bermuda waterfront scene to the 1913 Armory Show. But he was such a perfectionist that he found it hard to finish a canvas. Only in the early 1920s, after consulting a psychiatrist, did he realize newspaper illustration — a career he was pursuing half-heartedly to support himself — was his true calling.

“The doctor told him, ‘You can’t agonize over these paintings,’ ” his son recalled. “ ‘You need something you can do every day and then it’s done.’ ”

Mr. Wortman soon landed the “Metropolitan Movies” gig at The World. “I found myself, to my everlasting amazement, in a job that paid me money for doing exactly what I wanted most to do,” he wrote years later. “I began to report in pictures and words, for a newspaper, the life around me in a great city.”

His enthusiasm for the job is abundantly evident in his drawings. Looking at their span (he produced more than 9,000 in 30 years, and some 5,000 are still extant) it sometimes seems as though he was spying on every sort of person, office building, apartment and street corner at once. Each panel is also richly laden with architectural and sociological details. For repeated series, like “Show Bizzness” and “Mrs. Rumpel’s Rooming House,” he often picked out a specific street, office or building and made detailed exterior and interior sketches from various angles.

Mr. Wortman also seemed to display a special sensitivity toward the daily lives of women, perhaps because his drawings were often based on photographs taken by his devoted wife, Hilda. (She stopped photographing for him in April 1938, when their son was born.) Throughout his career Hilda also reported back snatches of overheard conversation for his captions. Friends and readers fed him ideas too.

His sources came in handy when the family moved from the West Village to Martha’s Vineyard in 1941 after his first heart attack. There the Wortmans kept up their connection to New York with a stream of visitors — Reginald Marsh, Rube Goldberg, James Thurber, Jackson Pollock, James Cagney and others.

Today Mr. Wortman’s New York, with its shoeshine boys, organ grinders and El trains is a thing of the past. Yet in some ways it remains eternal. Take his 1933 drawing of Albert Einstein, surrounded by reporters. “Let’s leave out that stuff about an expanding universe in a curved space, Professor,” one says. “What we want is your theory on red-hot coeds.” Or his 1938 depiction of two dejected-looking men standing on a crowded street. “They call this a ‘recession,’ not a ‘depression,’ one notes, “but I don’t feel any difference.”

Although Mr. Wortman is “called a cartoonist because his work appeared in newspapers and had captions,” said Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., “he was very much a genre artist. There’s just this real beauty to the drawings and an inner life to the characters, more than one might normally find in a cartoon.”

That’s precisely what got Mr. Sturm, when he saw a copy of “Mopey Dick and the Duke,” Mr. Wortman’s 1952 collection of tramp cartoons, in 2006. (Mopey was based on an acquaintance — a retired sea captain — and the Duke was his self-portrait.) He quickly Googled the name, found the Web site, and tracked down Mr. Wortman’s son, who was living in his father’s old house. “When he said he had about 5,000 drawings in his attic and shed,” Mr. Sturm said, “I nearly fell off my chair. ”

Half those drawings have been donated to the Center for Cartoon Studies, where they reside alongside work by Garry Trudeau and Chris Ware. Mr. Sturm and Denys VIII intend to sell enough of the rest to endow a scholarship in Mr. Wortman’s name.

Since Mr. Wortman’s death, Mr. Sturm noted, the fact that he wasn’t quite a fine artist or a cartoonist has made him “a man without a country.” But now “I’ve opened the door,” he added, “my hope is that there will be other curators and academics who will figure out where Wortman belongs in American art.”
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Denys Wortman

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