Edited by Jonathan Barli (Fantagraphics Books)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: impossibly inventive – an all-year-round treat… 9/10
Virgil Parch is another of those almost forgotten key men of comedy cartooning: a pervasive creative force working away for years, making people laugh and slowly, steadily changing the very look and nature of the industry.
Although largely unremarked upon and unremembered these days, Virgil Franklin Partch II (1926-2004) is probably one of the most influential – and most successful – American cartoonists in history.
His arch, absurd, rude, sly, subtle, skewed, whacky and astoundingly unique gags, strips, stories and animated shorts were generated with machine gun rapidity from a seemingly inexhaustible well of comedy excess, which could be rendered in a variety of styles which completely revolutionised the American publishing from the moment in 1941 that the artist switched from Walt Disney Studio ideas man to freelance gag-maker.
He is most well regarded for his cavalier abandonment of traditional form and anatomy. Partch is the guy who liberated gag-cartooning from the bonds of slavish attention to body detail: replacing broadly human shape and proportion with a wildly free and frenetic corporeal expressionism – perhaps even symbolism – which captivated legions of fellow artists and generations of fun-starved readers. He’s the guy who made 19 fingers on one hand work…
This superbly comprehensive and lavishly huge (260x315mm) landscape hardback art book/biography (in monochrome & full-colour) covers his life and career in scrupulous detail through a wealth of his best cartoons – many shot from original art – and includes oodles of roughs, sketches, layouts and doodles, all accompanying the bright and breezy life-history by James Barli, and all augmented with loads of intimate photos.
The joyous journey begins after a heartfelt Introduction by stylistic and thematic heir Peter Bagge with ‘Partch ad absurdam’: broken down into easily digested chapters beginning with ‘Prologue: Under the Volcano’ which introduces the man’s remarkable forebears whilst ‘The Call of the Wild’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’ details his early life and the eclectic education which led to his joining the fabled Walt Disney Studio in its golden, pre-strike prime.
‘Brave New World’ and ‘The Divine Comedy’ reveal how the assembled animators’ habit of pranking each other with gag cartoons led friend Dick Shaw to dispatch many of Partch’s drawings to magazines such as Collier’s and The New Yorker in 1941, whilst ‘A Farewell to Arms’ covers the new family man’s stint in the Army where his gift was exploited by Forrest J. Ackerman, beginning his own stellar career as editor of Army newspaper Bulletin…
On demobilisation Partch’s path was assured and he became the most prolific gag-seller in America: it was almost impossible to find a magazine or periodical that didn’t carry one of his cartoons, and when Playboy debuted in 1953 there was one of his women sharing cover-space with Marilyn Monroe…
As seen in ‘Point of No Return’ and ‘The Genius’, whilst working as an animator (for Walter Lantz on Woody Woodpecker) and as a cartoonist for leftwing New York newspaper PM, Partch started a constant stream of book collections in the fifties which captured and reflected the risqué, hard-drinking sophistication of the era as well as simultaneous lives as an ad man and writer for other draughtsmen, and worked with futurist economist William J. Baxter on a series of prognosticative books which warned of such nebulous dangers as out-of-control capitalism, the Military-Industrial Complex, “1 Per-Centers” and even Global Warming…
His passion for sports – especially sailing – is covered in ‘Three Men in a Boat’ whilst in
‘As a Man Grows Older’ changing times and the urgings of old pal Hank (Dennis the Menace) Ketchum provoked the restless creator to launch his comicstrip Big George! whilst increasingly becoming a cultural ambassador for his craft and art form. He also upped his range of commercial and design projects and invented the grittier strip The Captain’s Gig.
The rise and rise of Virgil Partch is covered in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ whilst ‘Epilogue: the Death of Virgil’, like a bad punch line, recounts the truly stupid and meaningless end of a legend when both the artist and his wife perished in a car crash on August 10th 1984…
The Unknown Quantity then focuses on his astounding output through ‘A Partch Picture Gallery’ subdivided into ‘Cartoons from PM’, ‘War in Pieces’ (military madness), surreal and absurd ‘Reality Bites’ and the boozy world of ‘Cork High and Bottle Deep’.
His laid back view of sex is recapitulated in ‘The Eternal Chase’ and ‘Battle of the Sexes’ whilst ‘The Sporting Life’ and ‘Partched’ focus on his other overweening interests…
His graphic expertise and design triumphs are celebrated in ‘Covered’ and ‘(m)Ad Man’, his skewed view of the world’s leaders in ‘Political Partch’, after which a selection of his articles and stories kicks off with ‘The Private War of Corporal Partch’, before ‘The Vipper Comes to Town’, ‘Bourbon and Watercolors’, ‘Vacation for Vipper’ and ‘Inland Cruise of the “Lazy B”’ bring this glorious tribute to times past and an incredible artist to a close.
Virgil Partch was blessed with a perpetually percolating imagination and a unique visual point of reference which made him a true catalyst of cartoon change, and Fantagraphics Books have once again struck pure gold by commemorating and celebrating this lost legend of graphic narrative arts.
Most importantly this is an astoundingly funny collection: the vast accumulation of funny drawings and clever stories still as powerfully hilarious as they ever were, and all brilliantly rendered by a master craftsman no connoisseur of comedy can afford to miss.
© 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All text © 2013 Jonathan Barli. All images © their respective copyright holders. Introduction © 2013 Peter Bagge. All rights reserved.