Friday, July 17, 2009

The Children-Kids and their fine arts Daddy

Lyonel Feininger would have been 138 years old today, he was born in 1871.
It seems odd that after posting for a month and a half that this would be the first newspaper cartoonist's birthday to pop up. And in a way, it's both fitting and not.

Feininger is best known for being a "fine artist" (I take umbrage with this term's exclusive nature) and sculptor, but in 1906, for just about one year, he was a real artist in my book. He was a cartoonist.

The reason I hint at "not" fitting, is because he only did it for a year. His work is often not mentioned among the greats who began the medium and his work is not widely know, even among geeks like me. "Fitting" though because he is responsible for one of the greatest innovation in the medium.

The comic strip "Four-Color Big Bang" began just 10 years earlier when R.F. Outcault first established "Der Yeller Kid" as a regular Sunday supplement feature in Joseph Pulitzer's newspapers. The success of which, soon had many followers: The Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Alphonse & Gaston, And Her Name Was Maude, etc. And no sooner did this new medium sweep the nation, than there were already detractors, preaching moral outrage. Conservative dowagers everywhere expressed complaints that the slapstick nature and low humor of these strips was going to corrupt our youth and demanded them expunged from their family-values newspapers. The Chicago Tribune syndicate tried to appease them.

There was a large contingency of German immigrants around Chicago, including many artists of children's books back in their homeland, so the Tribune contracted a number of them to design Sunday pages for their papers. Most of the artists turned out work that was really beautiful graphically, but were really just an extension of the children's book work that they were known for...with one exception.

Feininger mixed his very stylized and stunning graphic sensibilities to create really stunning full page art (in these days a Sunday comic took up the entire page, not like today's page which is crammed with 5 or 6 or 7 different strips and ads) with a new innovation. He told a serialized story with his continuing characters. This had only been dabbled in once by Outcault in "Hogan's Alley" over a two page story and once by Rudolph Dirks with "The Katzenjammers" over three pages. Feininger told a continuing adventure-humor story which ran the run of the strip. This laid the ground-work for the next 50 years of comics. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, Little Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, Gasoline Alley...all benefited from serializing their stories and making them bigger and grander than the newsprint they were printed on. Even today with Doonesbury and for Better or Worse we see examples of this, thought the newspapers have little space to let the artists do justice to it.

Enough's a few pages of "The Kinder-Kids" (literally translated means "The Children-Kids") as they embark on their journey all over the world in the family bath-tub, starting off with a strip announcing the characters.

See how his panel layouts lend a cohesiveness to the page even as the story moves along.
That's just a sampling. Fantagraphics Books put out a complete collection of ALL the strips in one thin volume (it was only a year remember), and you can see the full story there.
Another strip he did was called "Wee Willie Winkie's World" about a child and the was he saw the world around him. Not as buildings, trees and clouds, but all come to life in really amazing anthropomorphous forms. Enjoy!

We'll not often see graphic story-telling like this again. But Feininger's work is forever preserved.
The "Fine" art critics who praise his work usually pretend he was never a cartoonist and seldom (I mean VERY seldom) mention this stuff.

Don't worry. They'll all smoke a turd in Hell for being so narrow-minded and tunnel-visioned.
Thanks Lyonel!

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