Tuesday, July 09, 2019


Paul Coker's art was not as broad or slapstick as the art of most other MAD artists, but in his own quiet way he was every bit as brilliant. 

Look at this lovely little drawing of a boy standing. He's not being carried off by a gorilla or balancing a ball on his nose.  Yet, Coker keeps his subject from being dull and symmetrical by adding a dozen charming touches: notice the unusual shape of the bottom of his sweat shirt, or the interesting shape of his collar, how only one pant leg is rolled up and the other has a patch.  Notice the confidence of Coker's folds over the boy's stomach or at his elbow.  

In an era when the New Yorker features a bevy of untalented cover artists who use lifeless mechanical circles for heads, look at how much sensitivity Coker puts into this "almost' circle head-- the subtlety of that chin, those little boy cheeks, the treatment of that vacant ear, the shape of that hat-- all before you even get to that marvelous facial expression described in so few lines.  In my opinion, Coker's better than all of them.

Another splendid drawing now shows the boy in motion.  Notice how beautifully Coker captures the running figure, with those over-sized shoes kicking up pebbles.

You won't find the silhouette of that leg and disjointed ankle in any anatomy book.
If you have any question about how many of the subtle touches in that figure are intentional, look at the way Coker used white paint to trim back that shoe on the left.  He felt that 1/64 of an inch made enough difference that it was worth going back to tweak.  Clearly Coker is performing micro-surgery in these drawings.

It's to MAD's credit that, amidst all the clang and clatter of the Don Martin and Al Jaffee and Prohias, it appreciated the quiet brilliance of Coker.

Here's a gallery of other Coker drawings, enlarged so you can better see what he was up to.

Note how Coker handles the small boy clinging to his mother's leg: no eyes, just nostrils and a very unusually shaped mouth.  There are great powers of observation and great artistic courage in these small choices.

The father's eyes might be a predictable facial expression, but his nervous smile is quite an innovative design. 
And dig those shoes!


Tom said...

I forgot about Paul Coker. A nice, lively, dancing line.

Jonny B said...

I've been reading you for years, and while I don't always agree with your opinions (I'm pretty fond of Ivan Brunetti and the other geometrists, for the same reason I like Fernand Léger), it's always a pleasure to read your take on things. So I recently reread the early Mad issues, and I realized that my all-time favorite, like head and shoulders above the rest, is Bill Elder. I'd be curious to hear your opinion of him. For example: https://twitter.com/charliehillart6/status/1146800835583778820

Richard said...

Unrelated, but here's an interesting article you may have missed from last week:

"N.C. Wyeth painted the world full of beauty, resilience and adventure. And full of white people."

WaPo Opinion argues "Newell Convers Wyeth was one of the great painters of whiteness, an artist who illustrated books that fired the imagination and formed the character of generations of readers (especially white boys) and a painter who worked contentedly and productively in communities that took easy, unapologetic pride in their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage. Born in 1882, he was, like many white men of his generation, interested in and sympathetic to eugenics, the supposed science of race that infected American culture, politics and jurisprudence, and fueled worldwide abominations including colonialism, genocide and the atrocities of Adolf Hitler."

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- I think that review of the Wyeth show must've appeared only on line; it didn't appear in the paper as far as I know. As you might expect, I think is it is a sour and ignorant review by someone struggling to find something to do with his intellect other than address the merits of the art. The result is a dishonest and nasty mess of a review. Shame on the Post.

Nine years ago the Post had a similarly ridiculous review of the splendid Norman Rockwell exhibit; the review ranted about how Rockwell was cliched art for white heterosexual males. The Post published my response ridiculing the reviewer here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070905024.html . I fear I may have missed the window for responding to this trash about Wyeth.

Tom-- Ah, don't forget about Coker-- a quieter, subtler talent for sure, but the more you give that "dancing line" attention, the more impressive he becomes.

Jonny B-- I love Elder's work-- he's on my list of MAD artists to revisit here, but I have access to fewer Elder originals to show, so I relegated him to a spot further the back in the line. (When I can, I do my best to show high rez pictures here of images people can't already find on a hundred other web sites.) From my perspective, Elder is a talented artist who, like Wood, has some technical rough edges, but the ineffable weirdness of his sense of humor and the overflowing bounty of his work more than make up for it.

Richard said...

Shame on the post indeed. Funny that he chose for his second piece of evidence a painting that has not one but two Chinese flags in it. Evidently, Vexillology was not the authors or editors strong suit. Not that it should matter anyway, since when is it not allowed for a white artist to celebrate their own culture?

And to try to associate NC Wyeth with Hitler, colonialism and genocide in the same breath, it’s just too much!

chris bennett said...

Lovely post David, I enjoyed that.

Interesting how the black square is so apt a symbol for a scream. And how the frazzled father setting off to work carries the same note in his hat (among other things).

chris bennett said...

Just noticed the same note appears in subtler form in the mother's hairband.

kev ferrara said...

What strikes me about Coker and so many of the other great cartoonist/illustrators of Mad is just how consistent they were stylistically. It really looks as though Coker can't help but draw the way he does. But that effortless style is the result of years and years of personal investment into the work; one personal choice after another, hour after hour, day after day, year after year at the drawing board. And in due course he knows how to solve pretty much any artistic problem in his own personal way.

That NC Wyeth article in the post is disgusting. Pure pandering to a destructive, negative, divisive and resentful ideology. And the author has the gall to think that these are his thoughts he is sharing, so indoctrinated is he.

Richard said...

WaPo opinion also gave us this treat today:
‘The Lion King’ is a fascistic story. No remake can change that.
"Bad as it is that the powerful are presented as inherently superior to all other species, things get substantially worse once the hyenas are introduced. With the lions standing in for the ruling class and the “good” herbivores embodying society’s decent, law-abiding citizens, the hyenas transparently represent the black, brown and disabled bodies that are forcefully excluded from this fascist society. Noticeably marked by their ethnically coded “street” accents, the hyenas blatantly symbolize racist and anti-Semitic stereotypes of “verminous” groups that form an inherent threat to society."

WaPo sez: Let the art burning continue!

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- interesting observation about Coker's shapes. He has some unusual angles in there, and it had not occurred to me how those shapes, which obviously appealed to Coker, repeat themselves through those drawings.

Kev Ferrara-- I very much agree about Coker.

Richard and Kev Ferrara-- that Wyeth review was indeed disgusting. I'm looking into it. As for the similarly disgusting Lion King review, it was not a review by a Post film critic-- it was written by an outsider who had not even seen the movie yet.

kev ferrara said...

At least when Alexander Nemerov (Yale) wrote his "The Boy in Bed: The Scene of Reading" interpretation of N.C. Wyeth's "Wreck of the Covenant," it was an original piece of misinformed, uneducated, and tendentious criticism. This wapo woke clickbait is so programmatic and predictable it could have been auto-generated. Pre-spoke rather than bespoke.

comicstripfan said...

Don't forget Coker's "Horrifying Cliches".