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An Illustrated History

We're ready for a Mount Rushmore of American illustration from the last half of the 20th century.

Add the names of Bill Mauldin and Jules Feiffer to Ed Sorel, Seymour Chwast, and David Levine, and this group of masters will give you a Mount Rushmore of American illustration for the latter half of the 20th century and onward. I have already noted Mauldin's two volume set of Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (Fantagraphics) when it was published. If you need a snapshot of Mauldin's genius, look to his poignant illustration of the Lincoln Memorial crying upon Kennedy's assassination.


Book Cover Feiffer's great work at the Village Voice has also been compiled (and also by Fantagraphics). Now come three recent works by the three amigos that warrant notice. Sorel, whose illustrations and caricatures have adorned more than a fair share of New Yorker and other smart magazine covers, normally collaborates with wife Nancy on his forays into literature and history. In the case of Certitude: A Profusely Illustrated Guide to Blockheads and Bullheads, Past and Present (Harmony), book critic Adam Begley and Sorel lampoon (and harpoon) nearly 50 world historical figures (Tom Cruise? Madonna?) who were convinced of some notion or belief--only to be clearly and definitively wrong. As the authors cheerfully exhibit with this well-chosen epigram from Ambrose Bierce, "To be positive: to be mistaken at the top of one's voice." In Christopher Hitchens's introduction (an essayistic gem that redoubles the value of this small but mighty tome), he observes, "from George Armstrong Custer to the teak headed British generals on the Western Front, we have shining examples of those who kept doing the same old thing, each time hoping for a different result. This conforms to George Santayana's definition of fanaticism, which is redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aims." This collection of sketches of the likes of Girolamo Savonarola, Carry A. Nation, Arthur Conan Doyle, Herbert Hoover, Sam Goldwyn, Joseph Stalin, and Bush & Co excellently illustrates that point exponentially.


Book Cover David Levine also has a long career illustrating: The New York Review of Books (in which he has appeared in every issue for 45 years), Time, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and The Nation, among others. His drawing of Lyndon Johnson revealing a scar in the shape of Vietnam is considered one of the most recognized (and most copied) of the Vietnam era--just one vivid example of Levine's extraordinarily acute vision and biting humor. Bill Moyers comments, "of another contemporary American political cartoonist it has been said that had he not become an artist he would have found his calling as a professional assassin...not so with Levine... He has far too much class... But remember this too about a man who could be so merciless and devastating in his portrayal of our poo-bahs. A great intelligence guided his hand and also a great heart. Even as he held their flaws and foibles high on the skewer he never seems driven by malevolence. 'I love my species,' he one said. And why not? He could not have had better material." American Presidents (Fantagraphics) is a 128-page compilation that assembles Levine's survey of American leaders and their coteries and skewers them with delightful results. It should be a required text in American history courses--Levine's images powerfully expose the venality, duplicity, and hypocrisy of the upper reaches of our government.


Book Cover Seymour Chwast, co-founder of Push Pin Studios (with Milton Glazer, Reynold Ruffins, and Sorel) has been a design trailblazer and seminally influential illustrator for nearly 60 years, and has designed and illustrated more than 30 books. While more commercially involved than other artists mentioned, as shown in Seymour: The Obsessive Images of Seymour Chwast (Chronicle Books), a splendidly edited and reproduced 270 page monograph, Chwast does indulge his sense of engagement with The Nose, a regularly published, 24-page newsletter that he designs and illustrates in order to "draw attention to relevant social issues as well as trivial ones." Design historian Steven Heller and designer Paul Scher (also Chwast's spouse) both provide illuminating commentary--if you want to go deeper than the compelling illustrations.
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Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum

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