Against The Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood
by Bhob Stewart (Editor)
Bhob Stewart writes, in the title essay of Against The Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood:
“…the entire history of comic books and newspaper strips seems to live and breathe in the body of work created by Wallace Wood.”
This would read as the kind of hyperbole for which I routinely chide books about television producers and the liner notes of albums by obscure jazz pianists but for one thing: The rest of this non-linear but comprehensive selection of articles, essays, commentary and Wood’s own work more than backs it up.
Sometimes you don’t put something together until it’s all laid out before you. I was vaguely familiar with the name “Wally Wood” but uncertain as to the particulars of his work before reading this book. Investigation yields repeated cries of “He did that, too?” That includes…
The early issues of Mad, where among many other memorable strips in the ’50s and early ’60s, Wood drew one of the finest spoofs of superhero comics ever created, “Superduperman!” Mad historian Grant Geissman writes here that this was also the moment when original editor Harvey Kurtzman first “nailed the Mad tone.”
The popular “Mars Attacks” series of cards, later made into a terrible movie by Tim Burton–in other words, a movie by Tim Burton. Wood helped conceive the series (but did not illustrate the cards).
Marvel Comics, where he worked on the original Daredevil and designed the red costume that defined the character for more than one generation.
A poster commemorating “The Disneyland Memorial Orgy.” Wood called this “the most pirated drawing in history.”
The Spirit, on which Wood assisted Will Eisner at the beginning of his career, in the ’40s.
Witzend, Wood’s own self-published anthology comic. This was the home of “Pipsqueak Papers,” Wood’s examination of the male sexual psyche — or at least his own — in a fantasy setting (fantasy as in Tolkien).
The Wizard King project. Wood intended Wizard King , first serialized in Witzend and later republished on its own, to be his life’s work. Artist Steve Ditko said one page — reprinted in this volume — was “possibly the finest single page ever done in the comics medium.”
And believe me, I’m leaving stuff out. There’s the little matter of his work for a comics publisher you may have heard of called EC, and like that. But these examples should be sufficient to show you the width and breadth of Wood’s career. His influence on cartoon art to this day is evident, and not just in comic books. In an illustration from a ’70s Flash Gordon fanzine, clear antecedents of Monsters, Inc.‘s Mike Wazowski and the Simpsons‘ Homer can be seen.
I said up above that this book is comprehensive, and that’s not entirely true. Wood’s work on Marvel and other superhero books is given short shrift in the text, though artwork samples do appear. Given the comments in his “There Are Good Guys And Bad Guys” essay, editor Stewart clearly doesn’t rank that material as Wood’s finest, which is supportable. However, in the interest of a complete overview, a couple of pages discussing Wood’s run as a “superstar artist” in the mid-’60s in more detail would have been appreciated. As long as I’m nitpicking, so would a chronology, slightly fuller biographical sketch — Wood’s wives seem to come and go at will — and an index.
But Wood’s work speaks for itself in the drawings included here, some previously unpublished, and this in turn provides the best possible recommendation for the book: It makes me want to see more of that work, especially but not only the Witzend material. Little seems to be readily available, which must vex Wood’s longtime fans as it now does me, a newbie.
A man of deeply repressed feelings, Wood had for too long sought release in alcohol; for this and other reasons he was in poor health as he approached the end of his life. Yet the best part of the man, it appears, helped his friends to overlook the other, twisted, darker side of Wood. Or at least to live with it as long as they could… until Wood couldn’t.
Wood took his own life in 1981. In a fascinating “rap session” of former Wood assistants conducted four years afterwards, they digress more than once into discussion of just how honest they wish to be. They conclude that Wood would want them to be candid, but admit they still desire to protect him, and balance their comments accordingly. The portrait that emerges is of a blissfully talented, demonically tormented man whose quality of work and friendship when he was at his best was great.
Against The Grain is unsparing in suggesting the less noble, rougher edges that must have contributed to Wood’s final decision. But Stewart and his contributors, many of whom knew Wood personally, view him through a clear, compassionate eye.
In “The Third Man,” which closes this anthology, John Workman comes up with perhaps the best way of explaining Wood’s appeal as an artist:
“Certainly he could outdraw just about anybody, and he knew how to tell a story, seamlessly weaving words and pictures together. But others can do these things too, perhaps even better than Wally Wood could. The thing that separated Wood and a very limited number of other human beings from us mere mortals was their ability to place the ‘soul’ within a work of art, giving that art an everlasting timelessness, and assuring the creator a sort of immortality. To look at Wallace Wood’s artwork is to see the good, noble, timeless part of the man.”
And Paul Kirchner writes of the aftermath of his unfortunate end, saying,
“Afterward, there seemed to be a lot of ‘if onlys.’ If only Woody hadn’t had the gun, if only he’d called someone, if only he had been with his friends. I don’t have much use for such speculation. It reflects nothing more than an ignorance of what was going on. He had his destiny, he played it through. You might as well say, ‘If only Wally Wood weren’t Wally Wood.”
Be glad you’re not Wally Wood. But more; be glad he was able to do the work he was while he was here.