Perfect Nonsense: the Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson

By George Carlson, edited by Daniel F. Yezbick & Rick Marschall (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-508-2

The art and calling of mesmerising children is a rare one, but the masters of such an imaginative discipline – whether through words or pictures – have generally become household names.

Lewis Carroll (although that’s really two people, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson & Sir John Tenniel), Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, L. Frank Baum, Enid Blyton, Maurice Sendak, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Rackham and their ilk, or cartoon-oriented craftsmen such as Winsor McCay, Sheldon Mayer, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, George Herriman, Elzie Segar, S.J. Perelman, Alfred Bestall, Crockett Tubbs, Milt Gross, Carl Barks, Bill Holman and others have all garnered some measure of undying fame for their sublime cannons of entertainment, but apparently these days, nobody knows George Carlson.

Carlson was both a unique and prolific, surreally absurdist, sublimely stylised magician of children’s entertainments and a diligent commercial artist, tireless, dedicated educator and print illustrator and designer.

He absolutely loved games and puzzles and was besotted with all aspects of print media.

A son of Swedish immigrants, he plied his trade(s) from New York and Connecticut between 1903 to 1962, producing everything from editorial cartoons, book jackets (including famously the iconic first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind), magazine illustration, typographical design, games, sheet-music, utterly unique advertising materials, books, pamphlets and so much more.

And comics: some of the most original, eccentric and captivating comics for youngsters America or the world has ever seen…

This superb and colossal compendium, the brainchild and magnum opus of extreme fan Daniel Yezbick, is the result of 15 years toil and superbly details every aspect of the lost master’s life, stuffed to overflowing with intimate photos, wonderful anecdotes and page after page of glorious, enchanting stories, poems, puzzles and pictures that still have the power to take your breath away, no matter how old you are.

This calculated resurrection of a lost giant begins with ‘Preface: Great Gran’pa Gookel’ by Carlson’s descendent Allison Currie, and an effulgent Introduction’ by author, critic, historian and cartoonist R.C. Harvey who kindles the lost days in ‘A Very Admiring and Well-Plumbed Apostrophe to George Carlson, Cartooning Genius’, whilst Yezbick’s fulsome Foreword declares ‘At Long Last, the Carnival’s Come Back’

Firstly Yezbick takes us through the great man’s multi-faceted career, beginning with ‘The Jolly Books of the Puzzling Private’ describing early works and the artist’s two decades writing, illustrating, designing and creating engaging and educational games and puzzles for iconic and influential children’s pulp magazine John Martin’s Book. Also heavily featured is Carlson’s first great creation Peter Puzzlemaker, whose visual and verbal conundrums fascinated and expanded the minds of generations of kids.

The tireless scribbler also ghosted Gene Ahern’s classic newspaper strip Reg’lar Fellers for years and was engaged during WWI as an army cartographer.

‘The Whimsical Wizard of Fairfield, Connecticut: Family Life and Commercial Art in the 1920s and 1930s’ details his most productive period, not just as a consummate long-distance entertainer of kids, but in local and publishing national arenas.

Whilst addressing Carlson’s lifelong fascination with transport – especially his astounding illustrations of ships and trains – ‘Gone With the Wiggily: Flirting with Fame in the 1930s and 1940s’ covers the Mitchell cover creation and other book jackets as well as Carlson’s far more lasting and influential contributions to children’s literature.

Most important of these are his superb illustrations for Howard R. Garis’ ubiquitous and bucolic tales of venerable rabbit grandfather figure Uncle Wiggily and the artist’s wholly originated series of Puzzles, Fun Things to Do, Play and Colouring books, as well as a succession of “How to” books  revealing the secrets of drawing and creating your own cartoons.

The origin of his short but incredible funnybook career is covered in ‘The Road to Pretzleburg: George Carlson and Self-Destructing Comic Book Narrative’ and the latter disappointing years of changing public tastes in ‘Slouching Towards Fumbleland: The Restoration of the Whifflesnort’ which prompted his just-too-soon abortive creation of graphic novels (in 1962) with the never published Alec in Fumbleland and the artist’s immortalisation as the creator of a series of images locked in a time capsule that won’t be opened until 8113AD…

The major portion of this sturdy compendium is taken up with hundreds of astounding reproductions of Carlson’s vast and varied output, beginning with ‘Early Works and Illustrations’ including scenes from many classical stories such as Icarus, Neptune and Amphitrite, Aesop’s Fables, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tom Sawyer and full colour cover and plates for such books as The Magic Stone, Uncle Wiggily, The Prince Without a Country and more…

Also included are examples of ‘Adult and Genre Works’ such as Broncho Apache, Death on the Prairie and Scouting on the Mystery Trail

‘Pulps, Poems and Pixies: John Martin’s Books’ offers a wealth of images and designs from Carlson’s 20 year tenure as contributing editor on America’s premiere pulp publication for children.

A master of what we now call paper and print technologies with the budget and freedom to go wild, he concocted covers, frontispieces, book plates, Holiday editions, graphically integrated poem pages, astounding layouts, games pages, riddles, nonsense word glossaries, animal alphabets and so many other ways to educationally enthral, engage and stretch growing minds…

The artist was also a brilliant composer of clever, witty limericks, odes, riddles, gags and brainteasers: a advocate and devotee of whacky word play in the manner of Lear and Carroll, and ‘Carlson’s School of Nonsense’ catalogues many of his most impressive cartoon-garnished confections whilst ‘Jolly Books’ displays his creations and tales for premium pamphlets (a forerunner of comicbooks) commissioned as give-aways by department stores, cxall dutifully crafted and packaged by the John Martin team.

As the magazine refused to carry straight advertising – feeling it was an abuse and betrayal of their young readers’ trust – Carlson and brilliant co-editor Helen Waldo devised a sponsorship method which name-checked at one remove selected backers and commercial interests through ingenious story puzzle pages, rebuses, acronyms and acrostics…

Once upon a time paper and printing were the internet: a nigh-inexhaustible, readily available resource which could provide stories, games and puzzles, information and diversions which only required a creator’s imagination and ingenuity.

There was nobody more skilled, adept or inspired than Carlson, whose life-long fascination with language, crosswords, puns, riddles, rebuses, maths, wordplay and graphic invention seemingly occupied every non-working, waking moment.

He also knew music (his wife Gertrude was a professional pianist and gave lessons from their home) and here ‘Songs, Games and Other Pastimes’ displays his charming amalgamations of graphics and terpsichorean instruction as well as his science-based features, articles and books, whilst ‘Tutorial Cartooning and Art Instruction’ offers concrete examples of the artist’s many years of publishing tracts and tomes intended to teach young and old alike the fundamentals of narrative art.

‘Trains and Transportation’ reveals in spectacular detail Carlson’s fascination with engineering, locomotives and all aspects of shipping – including the revolutionary and mindboggling book Queen Mary Comparisons – after which ‘Portraits, Presidents and Personalities’ displays a selection of his superb commemorative images, whilst ‘Adventures in Advertising’ reveals his unbelievable versatility in putting across ideas and selling, including many examples of the aforementioned John Martin stealth ads plus a plethora of delightful make-them-yourself Premiums he designed for youngsters.

‘Original Art, Lost Works, and Forgotten Frolics’ explore tantalising might-have-beens and unearthed treasures before the groundbreaking kids comics are highlighted in ‘Laughter, Puns, and Speed’.

Subtitled ‘The Whifflesnorting Thrills of George Carlson’s Eastern Color Comics’, a brief essay reveals the history of the illustrator’s short foray into comicbooks and the creation of anthology Jingle-Jangle Comics, which launched in February 1942 (running until 1949) and which headlined two features exclusively written and drawn by Carlson.

‘The Pie-Faced Prince of Old Pretzleburg’ was a manic, pun-filled procession of insane and wholesome nonsense which related the fast and frantic screwball adventures of royal mooncalf Prince Dimwitri and his inamorata Princess Panetella Murphy, and the too short collection of complete capers commences here with the fast, frenetic debut from #1, in which he saved the King’s breakfast pretzel from the insidious Green Witch.

Also included are escapades from issues #11, #15, #16, #20, #35, #36 and #41, absurdist adventures in rumbling tumbling happily tumultuous word and picture tales involving jet-powered kites, assorted bandits, scurrilous scarecrows, stolen violins, fabulous beasts, living jet-mobiles, talking animals, baking, belligerent unicorns and more.

Carlson brought a deliciously skewed viewpoint to the still-evolving syllabary of comics: there are hilariously punny labels and signs everywhere and in some shots weary birds rest on free-floating word balloons…

Without doubt, however, Carlson reserved his greatest flights of fancy for the inventive fractured fairy stories that comprised the eponymous ‘Jingle Jangle Tales’ – one-off fables starring peculiarly reinvented standbys like princesses and knights, interacting with astonishing animals and far-from-inanimate objects all imbued with a bravura lust for life and laughs.

Included here are ‘The Moon-Struck Unicorn and the Worn-Out Shadow’ from #13, ‘The Straight-Shooting Princess and the Filigree Pond-Lily’ (#22), ‘The Musical Whifflesnort and the Red-Hot Music Roll’ (#23), ‘The Rocketeering Doodlebug and the Self-Winding Horsefly’ (#25), extraordinarily mirthful mystical melanges augmented by a brace of outrageously wry spoofs of American classics ‘Skip van Wrinkle, the High-Hatted Hunter’ from #28 and the impossibly raucous and breathtaking lunacy of ‘Sleepy Yollow, the Bedless Norseman’ (#31).

Harlan Ellison correctly dubbed Carlson’s sublimely inviting whimsy for the very young as “Comics of the Absurd” and these cartoon capers are urgently in need of their own complete and comprehensive collection – preferably in a lush and lavish full colour hardback archive edition…’

If you have an abiding love of creative fantasy and access to beginning reading-age children (boy, that came out creepier than I imagined!), you simply must get this terrific tome and open their eyes to wonderment, enlightenment, entertainment and education in this timelessly addictively accessible chronicle.

Buy it now, and it will be this year’s best Christmas present ever…
Perfect Nonsense © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All images and articles © their respective creators or owners. All rights reserved.