A doctor has his nurse hand him instruments to operate on a set of paper dolls. A man working out in a gym crashes through a wall when the springs on his weightlifting machine backfire. A man working in the basement says to his kid, “Run up and ask Mother to turn off the iron”—as a hot iron burns through the ceiling dangling by its cord. None of these descriptions do the work justice, or even make any sense when described. But the work is familiar to you, whether you know it or not.
One of those cartoonists whose works I spent my twenties tracking down in countless dusty old used-book bins, Virgil Franklin Partch a/k/a VIP has now had his work collected in Vip: The Mad World of Virgil Partch. It’s one of many coffee-table books being printed now collecting rare out-of-print artifacts which, if I had known back then that they would be reprinted eventually, I might not have wasted all that time trying to find them.
Partch was one of many cartoonists from my early childhood whose name I didn’t know but whose work indelibly left a mark on my own style (I’m compared to Partch more often than anyone now). He was a master of the high/low aesthetic, and one of the best-known cartoonists of his time, though he probably wouldn’t be able to get so much work today. Most often he’s considered a New Yorker cartoonist but he actually only ever sold a handful of cartoons to them. More often he was one of the writers for that magazine’s regulars. Look at any issue now and though each artist has their own individual style, everything is “droll” and incites a chuckle rather than a belly laugh. Nobody has big eyes and teeth, and there’s no mugging. At one time if you weren’t considered appropriate for The New Yorker there was still Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, True, and countless men’s magazines. Today there’s only one general-interest magazine that regularly publishes cartoons.
Shows like Mad Men and Masters of Sex capture domestic and workplace life during the postwar era, but VIP’s cartoons are a record of the era in cartoon form. His takes on alcoholism would be out of place in today’s world of political correctness and coddling. The era of “drinking with the boys” is no more. Also gone is the pre-feminism “Battle of the Sexes”, as well as the military draft for that matter. Vip’s subject matter may have been a result of him growing up in the G.I. Generation.
But I’m not here to lament a bygone era or bitch about the current commercial-art market. Not only is this book a compilation, it’s a biography as well. As obsessed as I was with the cartoonist, I didn’t know much about his life. I didn’t even know what he looked like. Some obsessive collector-fanboy I am. I knew he was a Disney animator moonlighting as a gag cartoonist who had to devote his full time to it when many animators were shut out for striking. I knew he drank, to put it mildly, more than most. I tracked down most of his books, some of which were all-original work (Bottle Fatigue, Here We Go Again, The Wild Wild Women, Man the Beast, and The Dead Game Sportsmen), and some of which were collections (It’s Hot In Here, Water on the Brain, and Hanging Way Over). Little did I realize I was barely scratching the surface. I wasn’t aware he started out as an army brat then served as a soldier himself before beginning his career as a commercial artist. I hadn’t been aware of some of his clients. I didn’t know sailing was a hobby. I’d never seen examples of his fine art.
Partch could be considered a pioneering autobiographical cartoonist with most of the above themes serving as subject matter for lots of these cartoons. The army, alcohol, men chasing women, men tired of women, hunting — all were common themes he used, most of which are here organized into individual chapters. I doubt being stranded in the desert was autobiographical, though that’s also a common theme.
VIP is a good example for all us intuitive cartoonists, drawing clarity in a gag without heavily planning it out. Often this led to people having six fingers or more, something Partch said he did to make up for his days in animation having to draw three or four. It’s sometimes harder to review an art book, since the text can be gibberish with the accompanying art making up for it, but that’s not the case here. His childhood and home life are covered, before a few spreads of the aforementioned tropes, as well as a generous sampling of his advertising, illustration, newspaper strips, children’s books, and journalistic articles for magazines. He did it all. Reprinting cartoons from his books would be enough, but Jonathan Barli deserves credit for finding experts on his work and tracking down rare examples. There are plenty of examples of his original art as well. All in all it covers everything at 210 pages. It’s everything you always wanted to know about Virgil Partch, but were afraid to ask.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pursue women while holding a martini and gnawing through a table.