Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World by Monte Beauchamp and published by Simon and Schuster. ISBN: 978-1451649192. Hardcover. 128 pages with full color illustrations.
In Masterful Marks, Beauchamp has hand-picked 16 contributors provide biographies (in comic format!) of 16 legendary artists who revolutionized the genres of comic books, syndicated comic strips, animated cartoons, anime and manga, graphic novels, caricatures, gag cartoons, and children’s picture books. Most of the contributors bring their own artistic point-of-view to each biography so not all the tales are drawn in the style of each artist icon. And, not all of the biographies are told in a straight-forward typical manner – some of the author-illustrators use very imaginative and clever narrative devices to tell the story. Chas Adams’s urn of ashes tells his story. Little Nemo helps Winsor McCay tell his. Peter Kuper draws himself in as a narrator for Harvey Kurtzman’s story, and Kurtzman is present too. Drew Friedman also inserts himself in to R Crumb’s biography and Friedman makes it quite a personal tale. Osamu Tezuka, on the way to receive an award, relates his own life story with interjections from his cab driver. Dr Seuss’s ghost makes occasional appearances in his own biography. These creative histories were superb and an absolute joy to read.
My personal favorite among the non-traditional graphic biographies is the one written and illustrated by Peter Kuper on Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad magazine. I remember buying Mad magazine as a kid and even though some of the content was a bit over my head, I still knew it was smart, a bit subversive, and important reading. But even without this personal connection, the Kurtzman biography still would have been my favorite – it’s narrated in such an amazing way and I didn’t see the surprise twist at the end coming. The biography begins with the deceased Kurtzman rising up from the waters of Imjin to help narrate his biography. A bit macabre, yes, but it’s tasteful, and it’s an excellent nod to Kurtzman’s groundbreaking comic, “Corpse on the Imjin,” that showed the realities of war rather than glorifying it. The Imjin scene is brief and then Kurtzman (looking preppy and fresh now) transports us to the streets of Brooklyn where he meets up with Kuper who drew himself into the story as a narrator, too. Kuper presents a really good overview of Kurtzman’s professional life and his projects so you really get a good sense of who he was as an artist. The illustrations, color palette, and panel sizes are a delight to look at. There’s also a fun assortment of seemingly genuine photos incorporated into some of the panels.
When it comes to the more straight-forward biographies, my favorite is written and illustrated by Greg Clarke on Edward Gorey, the macabre children’s book pioneer. For Gorey’s graphic biography, Clarke adopts his artistic style and lettering and uses a mellow color palette. The story is the perfect blend of traditional and bizarre biographical information. The odd details were a bit surprising since I didn’t realize what an eccentric lifestyle Gorey led. Gorey does not like discussing his work but does offer this statement as an explanation for the misfortunes his characters endure: “Life is intrinsically, well boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does – that’s what makes it so boring.” Clarke created an all around great tale that kept me smiling – except at the end of course when Gorey passed away, but that probably goes without saying.
After reading Masterful Marks, I couldn’t help but recall a comparable project, Shadow Show: All new-stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury. Following each short story, the contributor provided an afterword discussing Bradbury’s influence on him/her and the story. These kinds of postscripts are noticeably missing from Masterful Marks which is a bit of a letdown because, in the introduction, Beauchamp mentions his “quest in search of sixteen sublime talents – each of whom had been deeply affected by their subject – to contribute.” [page 17] However, Beauchamp doesn’t elaborate on his quest or his reasoning for why he chose each contributor. Although in some cases the connection is apparent, for example the Kruper-Krutzman and Friedman-Crumb pairing. There are brief blurbs from four of the contributors on how their superstar artist affected them, but it just wasn’t enough to sate my curiosity. It would have been such a treat if Beauchamp requested that each contributor provide an afterword to follow each graphic biography. Also, noticeably missing from Beauchamp’s line-up are women featured as legendary artists or contributors. Surely a gal or two could have been included to round out the all-male roster?
Still, Masterful Marks is an impressive and beautiful collection of graphic biographies – the coloring is breathtaking. Masterful Marks is must read for anyone new to the comic art medium, and even life-long comic book aficionados will find it a noteworthy addition to their collection.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions are my own.