Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist

By Norman Pettingill, edited by Gary Groth, with an introduction by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-319-4 (HB)

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Sulk in your house and you’re on your own, mate. Here’s another comedy treat you can enjoy via assorted digital means, or if you prefer you can support the local economy by buying a hardback copy and waiting… and waiting… and waiting…

It’s a big planet and there are many places to hide an artistic prodigy. That’s never been more capably proved than in the case of Norman Pettingill, a lost hero of the workaday craft aesthetic who lived and died in Wisconsin, revelling in a backwoods life lived off the land. He supported his family with personalised cartoons, jobbing art such as postcards and commercial signage, commissioned illustrations and through simply stunning personal works: mostly natural scenes and reportage of the hunting and fishing community he lived in.
Pettingill worked in seclusion (and we all know what that’s like now, don’t we?) until his incredibly intense, ribald and frenetic postcard art was discovered by Robert Crumb who immediately reprinted them in his Underground Commix magazine Weirdo.

These over-sized scenes were multi-layered, packed with hundreds of characters acting in micro-scenes and grotesquely raw and vulgar: like Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel (the Elder), Basil Wolverton and Leo Baxendale working all on the same page.

This superb book, rough and rustic – with a wooden front cover for the hardback version – tells the life-story of this truly driven artist; who could no more stop drawing than breathe underwater. Self-taught and clearly besotted with the creative process, Pettingill was not afraid to fill a page with copious extras, and the work gathered here, collected by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (conservators of folk art of the American mid-west) shows a true original equally at home drawing pictures to pay bills and making masterpieces because he couldn’t stop himself.

On view are astoundingly frantic, charmingly gruesome postcard tableaux, featuring hunters, boozers and what we’d call hillbillies, but Pettingill knew them as the folk next door, as well as more intimate creations: family collages, entrancing pen-&-ink studies of beasts and birds he lived amongst – and hunted. There are even doodles he adorned the envelopes of letters with.

His surreal, bawdy, raw concoctions mirrored and presaged the graphic license and social freedoms of the 1960s counterculture (although he really started his own artistic journey twenty years earlier), but even though his fans today include such iconoclastic cartoonists as Crumb and Johnny Ryan, Pettingill’s appeal is far wider than simple grist for us doodle-pushers.

With his fondly cynical, wry observation and piercingly incisive eye, Norman Pettingill became a societal camera onto a time and place in rural – and even wild – America that we seldom see nowadays: an honest raconteur, part of a tradition that includes and spans the fierce and gentle ranges from Garrison Keillor’s elegiac (and positively provincial) Lake Wobegon tales to the razor-edged self-examination of Southern kinfolk and mid-west archetypes typified by the gagsters of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour: a purely American humour by and for the ordinary guy.

This retrospective of Pettingill’s art presents more than a hundred of his most telling monochrome pieces and will appeal to cartoon-lovers and people watchers equally.
© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Individual contributions © 2010 their authors. Unless otherwise noted all photography and art © 2010 John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Art from the collections of Glenn Bray, R. Crumb & Jim Pink © 2010 the estate of Norman Pettingill.