The thing about the most successful cartoonists and comic-book artists is that when they achieve universal fame and acclaim, almost invariably they do so for having created or drawn one particular thing.
So however great an artist Carl Barks might have been, we tend to think of his art purely in terms of the Disney ducks he drew for decades. Joe Shuster may have created a whole stable of characters, but none of them boasts anywhere near the Q-rating that Superman does. Even Jack Kirby, probably American comics’ most influential creator, who succeeded in every genre of comics before hitting the superhero, is today best known for the capes, masks and cosmic stuff he did for Marvel and DC.
That’s in large part what makes Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings (Last Gasp) such a fascinating read—it gathers drawings from many of the giants of comic strips and comic books, from pretty far outside their known oeuvre. For the most part, that means naked ladies. Lots and lots of naked ladies.
Author Craig Yoe assembles contributions from a who’s who of cartooning—George Herriman, Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Mort Walker, Rube Goldberg, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, Alex Toth, Chuck Jones, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, Bruce Timm—and pairs examples of their “dirty” drawings with text pieces on the artists themselves.
The “dirty” of the title seems to be there more as a play on words than an actual indicator of how unwholesome the contents are. Sure, it’s not kids’ stuff, and dirtier than the works the artists are known for, but few of the contributions would qualify as out and out pornography, either. Mostly they seem to be blue gag strips, sketches or fine-art pieces of nudes and near-nudes (although Wallace Woods’ infamous 1967 “Disneyland Memorial Orgy” piece is certainly on the filthy side, more so for who is engaged in the sexual acts rather than the acts themselves).
Some entries prove revelatory, as in the quality of Barks’ non-duck work (damn, could that guy draw!), or Batman creator Bob Kane’s loose, abstracted style in a couple of sketches.
Others provide a sort of perverse thrill in that the style and forms are so familiar from the “clean” work that the “dirty” work looks like you’re seeing familiar cartoon ladies in a state of undress, as in Dennis the Menace’s Hank Ketchum’s drawing of a nude looking a little too much like Dennis’ mom for comfort, or a naughty maid by Shuster who looks a bit like Lois Lane. (Of course, there are also actual drawings of familiar characters naked, like Wonder Woman sans costume by her original golden-age artist H.G. Peter and another by her longtime cover artist Adam Hughes).
And then some of them just seem ... off, like a Jack Kirby self-parody strip involving “Astro-chicks” and a penis-shaped rocket ship (there are some creators who clearly shouldn’t work blue).
For the list of greats assembled in one place, though, and the bits of comics history that might otherwise never have found a home, this book is pretty much an essential volume for the bookshelf of any fan of the comics medium.