Friday Feature: Denys Wortman’s New York

For those who don’t know, I am married to a cartoonist. Eight years ago, when we first met, I hadn’t thought much about comics or cartoons past enjoying funnies in the paper or watching Looney Tunes on Saturday morning. Over the years I’ve not only learned how to tell the difference between a B nib and a G nib, but I’ve also gained a strong appreciation for the role that comics and illustrated narratives play in storytelling and, indeed, in documenting history.

You may not think that comics and cartoons are relevant beyond being ‘funny pictures’ that make us laugh – and they can be. But cartoonists have also been able to provide new insight and emotional retellings of historical events (see Maus and Louis Riel), and many daily and weekly comic strips have documented our existence and offered up commentary of our current time and place.

The work of Denys Wortman, a largely forgotten newspaper cartoonist in New York from the mid-1920s-50s, is currently being exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York (which in and of itself looks like a fantastic place). His work provides an intimate look at working class life in the city through the Depression and World War II. A recent book compiling his single-paneled work ‘Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 30s and 40s’, has also been named one of the top 10 comics of 2010 by Entertainment Weekly.

From the Entertainment Weekly review:

‘Working for The New YorkerLife, and, most prolifically, the World newspaper, Wortman incorporated overheard and imagined snatches of dialogue among working-class citizens and dowagers, rushing commuters and toff businessmen. No one is ridiculed; everyone is placed in a context that gives each life dignity. Which is not to say Wortman’s cartoons are without a vinegary tang: In the midst of the Depression, a pet-store owner is shown responding to a woman who’s come in bearing her pet bird in a cage. “Listen, lady,” he says brusquely, “your bird ain’t sick. Can you show me anybody today feels like singin’ every single morning when he gets up?” Timely as ever.’

So while you enjoy the funny pages this weekend, take a moment to also acknowledge the profound role that pictures and words – pencil and ink can play in reflecting our cities and our society…and then have a great laugh!

Have a lovely weekend!

** photo of Wortman’s work by Karen Green

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Friday Feature: Denys Wortman’s New York

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