Long before there was Jerry Springer, there was William Gropper.
Which isn’t, believe it or not, to say that the two men have much of anything in common : Gropper was a masterfully skilled cartoonist and fine artist, Springer a cheap carnival barker who profited on the exploitation of his guests’ misery, but they both milked the notion of the so-called “love triangle” for all it’s worth — it just so happens that the premise is worth a whole lot more in the hands of a sympathetic and smart illustrator than it is a sleazy talk show host.
I’m guessing that this assertion requires little by way of concrete evidence, but just in case, New York Review Comics has recently issued a handsome hardcover edition of Gropper’s largely-forgotten 1930 sequential story Alay-Oop, a book that may just be able to stake a legitimate claim to being the first so-called “graphic novel.” And to call it well ahead of its time is to sell it far too short.
Gropper would eventually become just as well-known for his leftist political activism as he was for his sublime art, given that he ended up being the very first artist hauled before a fascist HUAC hearing, but in these pages he lays bare the humanity that no doubt informed his strong conscience, relating the story of two circus acrobats who well and truly seem to have it all until a slick “Mr. Moneybags” type comes between them and inadvertently triggers a moving and literate morality play that contains not a single word — largely because Gropper’s cartooning is so expressive that it has no need of any language apart from the visual.
Still, it only stands to reason that when you’re shelling out 25 bucks for a book, you want to do some reading as well as keeping your optic nerves busy with looking, so it’s very fortunate indeed that James Sturm is on hand to provide a suitably concise, but in no way “mailed-in,” introduction that addresses the various issues raised by the comic it refers to, as well as significant historical details within its author’s own biography. I’m hit or miss when it comes to Sturm’s comics and his scholarly work, but here he hits all the right notes and sets the table for the experience readers can look forward to.
And my oh my what an experience that is ! Constructed by means of single-page “splash” images juxtaposed with blank white pages and occasionally interspersed with eye-catching and enticing double-page spreads, there is an organic fluidity to this, Gropper’s only book-length work, that demonstrates such an intuitive understanding of the then-nascent medium that only someone feeling as well as thinking their way through an art form that was still largely unexplored in terms of its potentialities could possibly hope to achieve. Comics were wide open at the time Gropper put pencil, pen, and brush to paper, and incredibly — dare I even say miraculously — he managed to both expand and define both what they were and, crucially, what they could do simultaneously. If it’s been far too long since you came across a comic where it seemed like anything was possible on any page, you could do a lot worse than going back to earliest days of the form and finding waiting for you there this absolutely extraordinary work, which feels as fresh, new, and exciting now as it did when first published. As always, the key to the future is waiting to be re-discovered in the past.
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