Abner Dean Made This

An Appreciation

Several years ago, when I had the Serbian cartoonist Aleksandar Zograf staying at my apartment, I showed him the fruits of some recent used-bookstore reconnaissance — two collections of cartoons by Abner Dean. I explained that I’d never heard of Dean before spying an alluring spine on the “humor” shelf and that subsequently, snooping around on the internet, it seemed the only people aware of his work were a handful of other cartoonists and a small cadre of enthusiastic collectors. Near as I could tell, he hadn’t had a book in print for the duration of my adult life.

After Zograf had paged through several images in the books, he looked up at me with an incredulous expression, and said: “Incredible! There should be a monument to this man!”

He was right — though it’s hard to say what an appropriate monument would look like. If it were a sculpture, it would probably involve a naked person or two, their nipples and genitals erased enough to deflect objections from the local decency brigade, but engaged in an obscure, vaguely improper activity that would be sure to raise other inconvenient issues. An appeal to the plaque of this monument to straighten things out would be in vain: the single sentence it would offer might seem straightforward enough — “I hate apple pie” or maybe “Facts are consoling” — but applied to the naked figures, the apparent declarative intentions would be thwarted. It could only be erected in a public square whose function was perturbation.

In 1945, Dean published his first book of “naked people” cartoons, under the title It’s a Long Way to Heaven. The characters in these drawings are modestly sexless, but they reveal all sorts of things about themselves through their activities. Their guiding star is folly, and when they act in groups, it’s always under the direction of a collective id. Clifton Fadiman, in a preface to another of Dean’s books, put it very well: “ His pictures are trick mirrors in which we catch sight of those absurd fragments of ourselves that we never see in the smooth glass of habit.” Some of the drawings are under the sway of a symbolism that suggests a simplified modern version of the instructive images Bosch or Bruegel composed — there are men turning into birds, or mushrooms turning into men, and people with portentous objects affixed to their pates — eggs, books, irons. Of course, when the rest of you is naked, even a hat becomes a portentous object: a naked man wearing a policeman’s hat is not simply a man wearing a hat. But even in the most hermetic and perplexing cartoons, you feel there might be some unacknowledged part of yourself acting out its pet obsession in some corner of the diorama.

At first these pictures look like gag cartoons (there’s a funny drawing, and then a caption that might provide a laugh) but on closer examination they reveal themselves to be a different animal. In a gag strip, the caption usually puts the image to a full stop — the joke has been released from the image, and so the image has been “used up” — disposable as the burnt rind of a firecracker. With some of Dean’s images, the caption can indeed provide a laugh, but the image, instead of coming to a full stop, begins to spool out in disquieting directions. Take, for example, “The Man with the Book of Answers.” The surface gag here is that the supplicants to the man with the Book of Answers all have their ears plugged. That’s kind of funny — you can imagine all sorts of pilgrims going through the motions of pilgrimage, and then stuffing their ears once the revelation is at hand. But the longer you look at the drawing, the more strange details accumulate, and you realize the characters aren’t just delivering a gag; they’re enmeshed in a perverse social relationship. The old man’s eyesight is failing. Is that a result of having pored over the Book of Answers? Is it merely a visual device that the pages of the Book of Answers appear to be blank — or are they actually blank? The old man is chained to the book by a leg shackle — is this something he’s done himself, in order not to have it taken from him? Or has he been chained to it as a sort of punishment? Whether he was conjoined to the book by choice or fiat, it has made him a desiccated freak. And the supplicants aren’t supplicants at all — they’re gawkers. They haven’t been looking for answers, they've been looking for the freak. It’s an exchange that’s depraved on both ends of the equation.

But even the drawings that are closer to gags, like “Double Thinking,” showing a man who has a doll doppelganger of himself strapped to his back (a woman is embracing the doppelganger, while the man himself is observing her and taking notes), are drawn with such an atmosphere of blasted loneliness that what you take away from them, more than the laugh or the cleverness, is a sense of chilly disconnect. In Heaven, Dean situates his scenes in landscapes, even when he doesn’t strictly need a wider environment to sell the situation — and most of the landscapes are barren, showing empty hills or dead cracked trees, piles of jagged rocks, horizons stretching out the promise of more nothingness.

That’s not to say the style isn’t elegant, genteel — even charming. The chilliness comes as a delayed reaction. I've watched several unsuspecting victims with a Dean book I've just pressed into their hands, and followed with perverse glee as their initial expression — an expectation of being charmed — curdled on their faces. The surface of the drawings has the slick poise of classic New Yorker cartoons. The characters could be recently released from the employ of Arno or Addams, having delivered their bon mots and retired from their parties and boardrooms, caught unawares after shedding their tuxes and evening gowns. The style seems the essence of an upper-middle-class '40s or '50s; the remarkable thing is that this isn’t an ironic appropriation of a '50s style after the fact — it’s the thing itself, happening as it was lived. It’s the underbelly of an era revealed not through retrospective commentary but by experience. Of course, the spikiness of the popular culture of that time has been smoothed by nostalgia; some of the New Yorker cartoonists could be quite acidic. But Dean goes beyond barbed social commentary — he’s willing to suggest human civilization might be an irredeemable enterprise. It’s the difference between a grimly resigned belief that that war between the sexes is intractable and the belief that the subconscious is a roiling mass of venomous snakes. Dean’s work is certainly in step with the era’s popularization of Freud; he’s just more recklessly willing to play in Pandora’s sandbox. The final image in Heaven is titled “Arrested Development” — it shows an old bearded man wearing a diaper. For this picture Dean has abbreviated his jaunty signature to “A.D.” as if to draw a parallel with the title. You can imagine the spry geezer happily finger-painting a history of the world with his own shit.

Dean’s second book, What Am I Doing Here? (1947), is a further distillation of his chuckling poison. The jaunty signature is omitted entirely, and the tableaux are more grim (Heaven actually has a couple of lighthearted visions of human connection, maybe even love; there are a few images of euphoria in What Am I Doing Here?, but they all have the tang of disappointment deferred). The most obvious shift in his second book is the use of an audience surrogate, an everyman who can be sympathetic without necessarily being admirable. His presence in the drawings gives the carnival of grotesquerie a cumulative effect. It’s a Long Way to Heaven is a series of snapshots, and What Am I Doing Here? is a catalog, a life. That our everyman appears to emerge from disasters unscathed in subsequent pictures could be evidence of resilience, or insensitivity, or perhaps even idiocy — but probably not innocence.

The use of an everyman also allows Dean a device to counterpoint the behavior of humanity en masse. What Am I Doing Here? is full of throngs of people, usually in misery — and when they’re not in misery, it’s even worse. There are squadrons of naked people on the street, heads down, gloomy. Some are wearing blinders. Some are carrying huge boulders outfitted with handles, as if they were briefcases. Whole neighborhoods are weeping openly as they go about their business, and it’s impossible to say if there is a cause, or if it’s some mass hallucination with its own self-reinforcing logic. Are people crying because they’re sad or are they crying because everyone else is crying and they want to get along? Which would be the more depressing answer? There are angry mobs, crazy mobs — fighting each other, running off cliffs like lemmings. What Am I Doing Here? displays a convulsive terror of “mass man.” One picture shows a full-fledged riot, with bricks and bottles peppering the air. Our everyman sails through the scene, a look of insouciance on his face, astride a tall unicycle that puts him above the trajectories of the hurled street flotsam. The title: “The Trick is…Not Caring."

Some of the conglomerations of mass man are excrescences of conformity; others, the shadow-castings of fascism (the indicia page of Heaven has a paragraph that reads: “This book has been manufactured in accordance with paper conservation orders of the War Production Board.” I can’t quite describe the lovely feeling I get, knowing the industrial churn of the Second World War could, despite itself, set aside a few pages for Dean’s patiently delineated nihilism). To the furnishing of natural disaster in Heaven, What Am I Doing Here? adds backdrops or war and dereliction. Burning cities are used for background ornamentation; windows are cracked or boarded up. The picture “I'm Looking for Someone With A Mole on Her Elbow” shows our everyman on a probably futile quest, calling through a bullhorn, walking down a shattered street. He’s wearing makeshift shoes — bags tied with rope around his feet — to protect himself from the rocks littering the road. A pedestal has been voided of its monument, perhaps swept off by war or totalitarian upheaval. Great and impassive forces have had their way here, leaving behind a complete vacuum. The only creature to hear our everyman’s call is a frightened cat.

In one of those improbably apt alignments of commercial illustration, Abner Dean was commissioned in 1949 to illustrate a fawning article on George Orwell’s 1984 for Life magazine. I can’t imagine Orwell liked the illustrations, any more than he would have liked the editors' strenuous efforts to link his totalitarian dystopia to specifically left-wing politics. Dean makes some stabs at depicting the dinginess of Orwell’s decaying London, but the drawings are helplessly clean and jolly. I don’t know what Dean’s politics were; I doubt it was intentional, but his drawings have a way of Americanizing Orwell’s warning, despite the reassurance of Henry Luce’s underlings. If America were to fall under totalitarian rule, they argue, it would certainly be a healthy, optimistic, can-do totalitarianism.

Despite the running thread of “mass man“ in What Am I Doing Here?, Dean still pays plenty of attention to the individual at the extremes of his solitary metaphysical condition. My favorite Dean drawing might be “How Much of Me is Me?” It shows a man in a church, literally peering down into himself. Having no clothes, he is pulling the skin of his chest up — pulling it up so far that it covers most of his face, as he stares down into the fold — as if his skin formed a collar. This seems like an act of genuine self-examination, but it takes place in a church where four stained glass windows repeat the scene: a man peering down into the fold of his own flesh. So the gesture of the actual man could be a reflex, or reflection, something done in mindless imitation rather than introspection. Another one that always grabs me is “This is Good Food,” showing our everyman gratefully devouring his own heart, alone among rows and rows of empty restaurant tables. It could be a delicious meal of self-pity, or something more elemental, the self-consuming nourishment of one’s ultimate resources.

And then there are the ones I've never been able to fix any definite meaning to, ones I don’t “get” but which nonetheless fascinate. The most hypnotic of these is “Sing That Song Again,” which might actually out-Freud Freud. Our everyman is dressed as a baby; it seems a disguise to outwit the law (a wanted poster with his face on it is plastered to a nearby wall). He is addressing his request for the song to a naked woman who is tending his carriage. She might be younger than he is; she has a look of congenital stupidity on her face, and she’s sucking a soda-pop through a straw. A shaft of light, like benediction from heaven, falls upon her. I return to this mysterious picture, and others, in trepidation of the day when they will finally make sense.

Dean went on to make other books. Come As You Are (1952) showcases a more domesticated strain of his humor — it’s a series of party scenes, with the social tangle of bodies impressively choreographed. “Mass man” here has been manicured to a more manageable size. There’s an edge to some of the cartoons, but ultimately they’re as solicitous as a good raconteur — all the partygoers, after all, are wearing clothes. Dean also wrote some books of illustrated verse that are (despite perhaps giving off a sparkle or two of self-hatred) content to cavort in the realm of light farce. He didn’t abandon the “naked people” cartoons, but to my eye, the later collections lack the powerful concentration of his first two books. For one thing, he moved away from the gliding finesse of his early technique. Steinberg and Steig had risen to ascendancy at the New Yorker, the open neurosis (if not outright insanity) depicted in their drawings finding a jagged correlative in their sharp, angular lines — the sort of lines a ragged fingernail might make on an oppressively blank wall. It probably seemed natural to Dean to gravitate toward that direction stylistically, to give his images the serration of his ideas. But the tension is lost. Aberrance that advertises itself as such can be quarantined as an eruption. It’s more disturbing, and more fraught with self-incrimination, to find depravity materialized in the skin of smooth normalcy. There are some cartoons in his “classic” style sprinkled through the later books, but they don’t seem as strong as the earlier ones, and I have to wonder if they're actually leftovers, recycled as padding.

But What Am I Doing Here? suffices, at any rate, to provide the blueprint for Dean’s eventual monument (because greatness is always eventually recognized, if you’re patient enough to wait until it’s too late, right?). This blueprint exists in a picture captioned “I Made This,” which is clearly a portrait of the artist and his oeuvre. Our everyman is standing on a hill, where he’s assembled some sort of rickety, possibly improvised sculpture. Lashed to a tree stump, it consists of a few boards, a funnel and wash basin, some plucked flowers, an umbrella, a looking glass, a cut-out silhouette of a woman’s head. Our everyman is imploring people to look at it, but no one does so — the people on the road that runs by the hill are all preoccupied, each of them dragging a heavy boulder with a rope. Their bruised eyes are pointed down at the dirt, or shut. You can’t really see the expression on our everyman’s face, whether he’s imploring with a sense of optimism or desperation, because the image is a two-page spread, and his face is lost in the crease. The stump itself — the platform of the monument — has a ragged edge. The living tree has been cut down; the trunk lies with its rings exposed — dead wood.