Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Life and Legend (and Art) of Wallace Wood

On a day in 1956, while Mom did her grocery shopping, I passed the time waiting for her by looking at the paperback book rack. I found The Mad Reader paperback. It was one of those moments I can say changed my life. I was already a comic book fan, but this tipped me over into the world of Mad, satire, Harvey Kurtzman and his retinue of fabulous cartoonists: Will (then called Bill) Elder, Jack Davis, and Wallace Wood. “Superduperman” and this Wood splash panel in particular, was what did it for me.

Wood’s short and unhappy life was in sharp contrast to all of the joy he brought to his fans. He died in 1981, yet the cult of Wood refuses to die. I believe everything Wood ever drew professionally, or even as a kid, has been reprinted somewhere. What was meant as a throwaway medium, the comic book, has been elevated to the status of art, and has value as a collectible. Wood is one of those artists high on the collector’s want list.

The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood, published by Fantagraphics, reprints in a deluxe format a lot of the highlights of Wood’s career, as well as tell the story of an obsessed artist. It is enlightening, but also sad. Wood destroyed himself by overwork, cigarettes and alcohol. In the end suicide by gun brought the end to his torment.

I prefer to think of Wood in the way that I saw him when I was a youngster reading Mad paperback books and then Mad magazine, as a somewhat mystical figure who came up with drawings that fascinated and delighted and inspired me. As far as I knew Wood did not even put pen and ink to paper, but drawings came in a ray from his forehead and transferred themselves to my brain via the printed page.

In the late fifties and early sixties Wood’s work reached a form of glossy perfection that is still a wonder to me. He did illustrations for science fiction magazines (Galaxy, primarily), and his work in Mad went from pen-and-ink line illustrations to an ink wash technique that gave his figures a modeled effect on the page.

These examples of his Mad work are from issues number 44, 45, and 49, all from 1959.

Copyright © 1959, 2017 E.C. Publications, Inc.

This illustration was done for Galaxy magazine, cover dated December, 1958.

Copyright © 1958 Galaxy Publishing, Inc.


DEMiller said...

Love seeing Wood's amazing art. I missed seeing him in person because my flight was canceled in 1981 to the San Diego Con. He died a few months later.

Postino said...

Dave, I remember that San Diego Con. Our mutual friend, Clay Geerdes, left the room while we watched a panel discussion with Wood. Clay was upset with how bad Wood looked. It was my first and only time of seeing Wood in person, yet anyone could see he looked unwell.