The litmus test for any collective work based on the idea of one page per artist is whether the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Both Naked Cartoonists and Sketchtravel, two new anthologies of work by a myriad of artists, have no trouble achieving that goal.
The first accomplishes the challenge through raw humor, as a phalanx of the world’s best gag artists go to the mat, naked, with almost 150 funny, whimsical, or just plain bawdy self-portaits, au naturel. Robert Brown, whose rowdy “Granny” character was arguably the most compelling female to grace the pages of Playboy, ranks near the top of this marvelous little gem, but just as enjoyable was the “Combat Cartoonist” self-portrait by Chip Beck (Kiljoy), Barbara Dole’s “Nude Self-Caricature on Kosher Dill Pickle in the Wind,” Will Eisner as a coy dumpster-diving exhibitionist, or the famed Stan Goldberg as a bare-bottomed male dancer. Dan Piraro (Bizarro) deserves kudos for his strategically-located likeness of Garfield, and my personal favorite is National Lampoon’s Gahan Wilson’s quirky below-the-skin impression. My only criticism of this compilation was the all-too-common trope of the giant pencil as sexual metaphor.
With loftier ambitions, Sketchtravel’s idea is to send a sketchbook around the world, to be passed directly from artist to artist, who proceed to fill in the blank pages with whatever they heck they wanted. The result is, as the premise might suggest, eclectic. Ranging from the most lapidary, such as the bare-bones (literally) sketch of Mike Mignola to the lush painterly exploits of Greg Couch and James Jean, this cosmopolitan volume nevertheless—paradoxically—fits together like an intricate puzzle, boasting both thematic unity and even a kind of internal logic. The drawings of Nicolas de Crécy, Mike Lee, and Nash Dunnigan are powerful: compositionally strong, beautifully executed in pen and ink and charcoal and pencil respectively, and also smartly referencing the idea of a global sketchbook or the puzzle.
The very first drawing made in the travel notebook, by Rébecca Dautremer, a whimsical sidelong portrait of a woman with an afro on a transparent cart clad in a Victorian-era dress covered in contemporary taglines, and being pulled by a dachshund, is a potential favorite. Onwards we head into the creative unknown, the hesitant text suggests, and the whole tenuous nature of the endeavor becomes plain as day. One of the most accomplished works is Pixar’s Daisuke “Dice” Tsutumi’s crepuscular painting of a little girl holding the sketchbook, terrified by an ominous creature made up of an abyssal palette of fellow artists’ drawings, thus expressing the artist’s own apprehension at being involved in such a high-profile collective project. “The terror I felt turned into the shadow monster that loomed over me,” says Dice.
The original Sketchtravel notebook sold at auction for over $100,000, a price that doesn’t seem excessive at all when one considers how many great artworks it contains.
Naked Cartoonists by Various Artists, edited by Gary Groth. Fantagraphic Books, $22.99 (156p) Hardcover.ISBN 978-1-60699-538-9
Sketchtravel by Gérald Guerlais and Daisuke Tsutsumi (and Various Artists). Chronicle Books, $40 (192p) Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-45211-245-9