Among the staff members at Heroes I’m likely the one with the least background in visual art. My creative tendencies tend more toward music and the written word. Strange then that my first review of 2011 concerns one of 2010’s most dynamic art books. Denys Wortman’s New York is a fascinating book however you look at it. For me, the real hook of this publication lies in its stranger than fiction backstory. Noted cartoonist James Sturm (James Sturm’s America: Gods, Gold, and Golems) apparently came across a single strip of Wortman’s, grew curious, and set out to find out more about this largely forgotten artist. As luck would have it Sturm was able to find Wortman’s son who had a shed full of his father’s art that was in danger of succumbing to the elements. Sturm’s good timing led to our good fortune.
On one hand, the fact that an artist of Wortman’s caliber was nearly lost to the ages is a pox on the comics community. How could the industry forget work like this? On the other hand, it might be a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just as you have to possess luck along with talent to break into this industry, I guess to some degree the same can hold true for cementing one’s legacy. Wortman lived and worked in New York City in the ’30’s and ’40’s, and most of the strips in this book act as a document of those times and places. There are sarcastic one liners being lobbed back and forth from women out on their apartment balconies, visages of streets with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles packed together like sardines, and charcoal renderings of Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster.
Was Wortman trying to consciously play the role of zeitgeist-catcher? I’m not sure if any artist of any genre can really achieve that measure by his own will. On the off chance that he succeeds, it usually falls upon future generations to determine the successes or failings of a work. More likely, Wortman was creating these strips for his own pleasure as much as anyone else’s. And somewhere between the conversations and the gags, the bricks and the pushcarts, we as readers in 2011 open up Wortman’s book as if it were a time capsule. And like Canadian cartoonist Seth’s fictional story It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, sometimes we inadvertently stumble upon the work of an artist that grabs us, sits us down, and instantly etches itself upon our consciousness. So it has been for me in my encounters with Denys Wortman’s New York.