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Updike: Aspiring cartoonist

Posted by Dan Wasserman  January 27, 2009 02:52 PM

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updike3.gifFor John Updike (captured here in a 1978 drawing by David Levine), writing was a fallback career. His first love was cartooning. Writer Jeet Heer has done a good job of pulling together the threads of Updike's cartoon fantasies, from his boyhood correspondence with Harold Gray, creator of Little Orphan Annie, to his use of cartoons and comics in his novels. Heer's accounts have appeared in the Guardian, on his blog Sans Everything and in the Boston Globe. Here are some representative quotes that Heer collected from the comics aspirant and appreciator:

“I can't remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young. I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon Three Little Pigs. It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.” From an essay in Hogan’s Alley, reprinted in More Matter (1999).

“Or was it simply that I was walking back to enjoy the [Boston] Globe’s sports headlines, Arts Section, and Spider Man (the only one of the “funnies” I still follow, as he juggles his tingling “spider-sense,” his improbable double career as a student and professional photographer, and now his marriage to the voluptuous Mary Jane), while I consumed my invariable breakfast of Erewhon New England Style Honey Almond Granola and orange juice?” From the memoir Self-Consciousness (1989).

On David Levine’s caricatures for the New York Review of Books. “Levine, instead, flung himself in a fury of crosshatching upon his subject. His style looked past Beerbohm to the three-dimensional grotesques of Daumier and Tenniel. No weary pucker or complacent bulge of physiognomy could slip through the supple net of his penstrokes, and every corner of the face – that vulnerable patch between the eyebrows, the unseemly area behind the chin, the mute folds of the ears – was brought into a focus were keenness transcended the mild demands of ‘humor’. On the gray expanses of the NYRB pages his etched homunculi seemed astoundingly there; one wanted to pick them up and put them on the shelf. Now, in the form of this book, one can.’” From the introduction to David Levine’s Pens and Needles: a collection of literary caricatures (1969), reprinted in Picked-Up Pieces (1975).

Updike's loyalty to his comics favorites was unwavering. In 1994, he wrote a letter of complaint to the Globe about its decisions on the comics page:

Thursday, October 27, 1994
CUT THE UNFUNNY COMICS, NOT 'SPIDERMAN'
I can't believe that you're cutting "Spiderman" -- the only comic strip in the Globe, except for "Doonesbury" half the time, worth reading. Do think again in making way for what sounds like one more jejune set of unfunny panels pitched at the nonexistent (or at least nonreading) X-generation.
And what ever happened to "Mac Divot" -- the most helpful set of golf tips I ever read?
JOHN UPDIKE
Beverly Farms

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Dan Wasserman has been cartooning for the Globe editorial page since 1985. He has published two collections of drawings, "We've Been Framed" (Faber & Faber, 1987) and "Paper Cuts" (Ivan R. Dee, 1995). His cartoons are widely reprinted and are syndicated internationally by Tribune Media Services. He draws more quickly than he types.
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