Thursday, August 09, 2007

Drew Friedman

Who is Drew Friedman, and why should you care? He is perhaps the foremost living caricaturist, and has a diverse fan-base that has included R. Crumb, Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Stern, and Jerry Lewis. The last is most surprising, considering Friedman has often targeted the slapstick "King of Comedy" in his satirical comics. But Friedman has not been universally lauded, as such figures as Joe Franklin and Wood Allen have taken exception to the unflattering portraits the artist has made of them. Franklin went as far as suing* Friedman for $40 million for depicting the aging talk show host as an incredibly shrinking man.

It's not surprising that some of Friedman's subjects have been offended. As a cartoonist, he employs a grotesquely unflattering style. Punctuated by seemingly millions of stippled ink-dots, his targets are often decorated with extra wrinkles and liver spots. Their open mouths are connected by strips of white sticky mouth goo, and every flaw in their appearances seem to be especially magnified. While Daniel Clowes (also a fan) once famously said that caricaturists traditionally employ the technique of softening their models' most prominent features, Friedman obviously breaks rank with his colleagues. It is the rare public figure that could find their visage beautiful through the pen of Friedman.

Despite his reluctance to glamorize celebrity, it is possible to see the affection Friedman has for some of his most frequent targets. Tor Johnson, the moronic ex-wrestler from the Ed Wood movies, appears often- and despite his bumbling persona, it's clear that Friedman has a special affinity for the hapless giant. Similarly, the artist has portrayed many old Jewish comedians, and collected them into an anthology. While they are often ugly, the essential vulnerability of their humanity is undeniable. Friedman is clearly in love with obscure "B"-level celebrities from the 30's, 40's and beyond. But instead of drawing comics incorporating historically accurate details of their lives, he places them in unfamiliar milieus. Abbot and Costello walk through seedy modern cityscape. Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz attend a NAMBLA meeting.

Friedman's drawings have a grainy photorealism quality to them. His stippling technique betrays an obsessive fascination to detail, and his backgrounds are consistently moody and compelling. Together these elements often add up to even more than a sum of their parts. Seeing a Friedman cover is a fascinatingly visceral experience. Even after the artist began to move away from his trademark technique in favor of painted caricature, his work has always been immediately recognizable. Despite the fact that you may not recognize his name, you have certainly seen his output. He has done commercial illustration for publications as diverse as Entertainment Magazine, the New York Observer, Al Goldstein's Screw, Premiere, Details, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. During this phase of his career, he has drawn all the modern celebrities, and ignoble detritus of the wasteland of consumer culture.

It is a shame that Friedman found alt comix to be such an unprofitable venture. His early collections, such as Warts and All and Any Similarity to Persons Living and Dead is Purely Coincidental are stunning proof for his genius. While these works are more rewarding if you know something about the often obscure figures Friedman includes, they can be appreciated for their own sake. A recent anthology (The Fun Never Stops!) collecting a representation of his work from 1991-2006 has recently been released by Fantagraphics. It's an excellent survey of both his artistic and more commercial work. I recommend it.

* Franklin lost the suit.

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