Monday, June 22, 2009


Strip Teasers: Capsule Book Reviews

The Brinkley Girls -- The Best of Nell Brinkley's Cartoons from 1913-1940
Edited by Trina Robbins
Fantagraphics 2009, 136 pages, oversize hardcover, $29.99
ISBN 978-1-560-97970-8

Nell Brinkley was an icon for several generations of women, and Robbins' estimate that she was the most copied artist of her era could very well be true. What Brinkley lacked in formal capability (her anatomy was often pretty questionable) she more than made up for with her dense, florid, uniquely feminine style. Women were utterly captivated by her romance illustrations (she rarely did anything outside that genre) and she had an intensely loyal following among not only readers but other women illustrators. In fact, if you were a female illustrator or cartoonist in the 1910s or 20s and didn't draw at least a little like Brinkley you were considered a bit of an oddball.

That this gorgeously produced, oversized book contains her best work is debatable because it concentrates almost exclusively on her color covers for the Hearst Sunday newspaper magazine section. This work is certainly her most impressive so I guess "best" is not necessarily misapplied. However, it would have been nice to devote at least a short section to Brinkley's black and white cartoons, which certainly are the bulk of her published work, and what she's remembered for. I suppose Robbins didn't want to waste her 9.5" by 13" coated-stock pages on work that could run in a less prestigious format. Fair enough.

The reproduction of the old color pages, always a dicey proposition, is handled here very well. The art has been beautifully restored, a task that must have been pure torture given the density of Brinkley's drawings and that sophisticated color work. My hat's off to whoever did that fabulous job.

My only problem with the book, and I may be starting to sound like a broken record on the subject, is that I would have liked to have more editorial matter. I realize that this is a coffee table book, and the art is necessarily the star, but Robbins knows her subject and I would have appreciated hearing more from her than the capsule bio provided. Another item that would have been welcome is a complete list of Brinkley's magazine cover features and their running dates. Some of Brinkley's series are reprinted her in their complete runs, while others are missing pages and yet others are individual samples. A real Brinkley fan would want to know what they need to be on the lookout for to complete their collections.

The Flash Press -- Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York
By Cohen, Gilfoyle and Horowitz
University of Chicago Press, 2008, 278 pages, softcover, $20
ISBN 978-0-226-11234-3

This book is an accounting of a very strange episode in the journalism history of the 19th century. For a few short years in the early 1840s a small group of entrepreneurs created a whole new sort of newspaper. The "flash press", as they were known at the time, were a group of newspapers that chronicled the sexual underworld. These papers discussed and reviewed, often in startling frank terms, the world of bordellos, prostitutes, pimps, and johns. They overlaid a thin, VERY thin, veneer of moral objection that kept their operations from being shut down, at least for awhile, but their clear purpose was to keep potential customers up to date on the happenings in the skin trade.

Now my readings in journalism history are normally limited to the age of the newspaper comic strip, but how could I resist a book about such a subject? I was expecting a rollicking account of these amazing Victorian relics, but I hadn't reckoned on the authors' scholarly approach. The first half of the book consists of dry, pedantic essays about the newspapers and early Victorian sexual politics. The authors absolutely refuse to have any fun with their subject, quite an achievement really given the subject matter, and I had to force myself to keep reading.

The second half of the book is considerably more lively, featuring excerpts from the newspapers themselves, including many racy woodcut cartoons. I was so worn down from the essays by then that I didn't enjoy the material as much as I should have. If you are sufficiently interested in the subject to buy the book, I suggest you read part two and then, if your thirst for knowledge about the papers remains high, tackle the essays only then. The front matter does in fact provide important history, context and background, but the information goes down much easier once you've had the chance to get some firsthand experience with these utterly crazy newspapers.


Re Trina's Brinkley book. It should be remembered that she has already covered much of what you feel is missing in this one. I refer to her excellent 2001 book, 'Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the early 20th Century', a small format volume of 144 pages, with no color repro and a focus on her black and white work. If one is read in tandem with the other, then all bases are covered.
well, except for the completist listings. I don't think Trina thinks that way.
oops. Another thing. I may have got more out of the 'dry pedantic essays' of Flash Press than you did, and I wrote about it here. The comings and goings of personalities in the publishing world would normally have interested you. I guess, as you say, it just wasn't your period.
Hi Eddie --
Agreed, I should have mentioned the prior Brinkley book. Be assured that I do indeed recommend it, and I think you've made the ideal suggestion -- read the two together.

As for Flash Press, I stick with my review -- the essays might be learned but they are dead set against having any fun at all with this utterly ridiculous subject. If I'd known that the book contained academic deconstructionist essays I would have given it a pass, just as I would if the subject were deadpan analyses of the New York Evening Graphic or the National Enquirer. The academic dogma that you can't have fun when writing about history, especially the loopy bits, is anathema to me. It might be expected/required in your master's thesis, but I have no patience for such belly-button gazing.

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