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article imageWallace Wood- One of the guys who drew America

By Paul Wallis     Nov 29, 2007 in Entertainment
Wallace Wood was, and still is, a truly unusual artist. He’s one of the few “cartoonists” who can step outside their own style when he feels like it. The comfort zone is where the lines go right, and for pros, that's where they like them to be.
Get it wrong, and you're doing yourself no favors. Commercially, it’s not a great result, if you’re trying to earn a living as an artist. Yet Wood worked on cover art for magazines as diverse as MAD, Weird Science, Galaxy Science Fiction, and Marvel. How different could you expect an artist to get?
Wood predates Crumb, who’s the only other artist I can think of who can leave his style when it suits him. Wood is also one of the major pen and ink artists. The pen and ink guys are a dogged bunch, and the sheer quantity of their images is astonishing.
Wood, however, is in a league of his own. He’s a line artist. That means his lines are good, and well defined. People can either draw, or they can’t, and the definition of Wood’s lines is truly impressive. It’s also highly innovative, and you can see ripoffs of things Wood was doing decades ago in the “underground” art of today.
You can see Conan, Heavy Metal Comics, and a lot of the black and white art of the 60s-80s and later. He even worked on early Vampirella, and the style shows repeatedly.
The guy could hit styles anyone would recognize. That’s talent of a very unusual kind. Wood started as an assistant on Teddy and the Pirates, which is a bit like the Rosetta Stone, in cartooning.
He’s best known publicly for the original MAD magazine, where he and Bill Elder established a benchmark for comic art, particularly black and white, which is barely reached, or even approached, these days. This was the heyday of the American cartoon, and the postwar art was definitely the right soil for growing a guy who hadn’t made much of a scratch on his early 30s.
This was also the hideously named “Silver Age” of cartoons. Americana Incarnate, the precursor of practically everything now being called "new" in Hollywood. Wood was working for anyone who had a piece of paper with a picture on it, as far as I can tell. Some of the best known, least credited, art in modern history was done at the time. Even the supposedly "modern" comic layouts date from around then.
These are the guts of a lot of modern art, including the crowd scenes, the high detail, the little weird inserts, all the stuff which takes a lot of cut and paste and hours on a computer. You can see what I mean about “dogged”. There’s thousands of hours of hand work, and it just flows, not scuttles, in each picture, despite print quality, themes, and fixated publishers.
This is the level of incidental detail, which when we see it in anime or other cartoons, is the defining art value, the proof of artistic merit… and it’s bloody cut and paste. Wood did his manual version with other techniques, which for want of a better description are using black and white as foils to each other, creating two shapes with each image. Very efficient, and as you can see from his work, and pretty damn good art by any standard you care to name.
You'll note from the gushing commentary of other artists that Wood is an actual influence, not some sort of artistic hood ornament. (Just for the record, coming from art critics, gushing is spiel. From artists, it means something.) He seems to have covered everything from erotica to Tom Edison's childhood, which is another divergence from single theme art. Also unusual is the fact that he could do pretty straight line based stuff, and this sort of image, which is line, but the lines have become something more, an aggregate image, like the MAD crowds
It’s a bit of a curse that the best bio I could find was Wikipedia, of all things. I also found most of their sources, some of which are from people who knew Wood, and can add some depth. The bio’s a bit mechanical, because of the amount of detail, and amount of effort it would have taken to put the vast areas of information about Wood’s work together. Somebody has done a book, see Amazon's endearingly competent page.
Note idiot title, “mad artist”. That's as close to writing for MAD itself as I ever expect to get...
It's just occurred to me I could literally link a picture to every word in this piece. Might just give it a shot, too. You'll see from that link he wasn't above sending up some of his own stuff, either.
Wood was obviously also a very real person as an artist, and an artist as a person. The guy had the artist’s disease, alcoholism, as well as a lifelong condition which sounds like migraines in some form, and sickness led to suicide in 1981.
All I can say about that is that ever a modern artist has beaten death, Wood, whose work shows so clearly in just about all modern image art, is the guy that did it first.
I'll make a bet with anyone that if you pick up his stuff, you won't put it down, really, for the rest of your life.
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