James Thurber – Cartoonist Vs. Writer

Sometimes BoxJam reminds me of James Thurber, an early to mid 20th century American author who created the Walter Mitty character. He was also a bit of a cartoonist, whose work often appeared in the New Yorker.

A NY Times review of the recent publication of a collection of his letters (NY Times requires registration but it’s free) is interesting not so much as a review but as a discussion of what part, if any, of Thurber’s work will be remembered by future generations. In other words, was he a writer or a cartoonist?

What is more striking about this cartoon — indeed, about most of Thurber’s cartoons — is that it is artful in a way that even the best of his stories rarely manage. As casually as he regarded them (or affected to), my guess is that his cartoons will be remembered long after his prose has been put on the shelf. Contrary to rumor, as Thurber admits in a 1951 letter, Matisse was never a fan of his work, but the comparison is not quite absurd, nor is it altogether inappropriate that Clement Greenberg should have taken time off from the Abstract Expressionist beat to write a few trenchant words about Thurber as artist: ”The convulsive passes Thurber’s creatures make at one another, their bursts of violence, exhibitionism and irrelevance, express the profoundest dissatisfaction with contemporary experience and, by inference, with society.”

To this I would add that as a general rule, the effectiveness of Thurber’s cartoons arises less from their clever slice-of-suburban-life captions (”Well, I’m disenchanted, too. We’re all disenchanted”) than from the drawings themselves. Little more than inspired doodles, his lumpy, ill-centered ”creatures” are nevertheless rendered with a nervous liveliness of line well suited to the often surrealistic situations into which their creator puts them. In his world, one takes it for granted that a giant rabbit should be seated behind a doctor’s desk, coolly asking a patient: ”You said a moment ago that everybody you look at seems to be a rabbit. Now just what do you mean by that, Mrs. Sprague?”

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.