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'Cartoons' Of The Artist As A Young Woman

If the teenage girl from Milledgeville, Ga. (known to her classmates as Mary O'Connor) had her druthers, she would have grown up to become a successful cartoonist and painter. It wasn't such a far-fetched idea; after all, the gag cartoons O'Connor contributed to her high school and college publications between 1942 and 1945 — both pen-and-ink drawings and linoleum cuts — won her considerable local and statewide acclaim. If O'Connor had stuck with her teenage ambitions, those rough, impressionistic illustrations might today be studied as juvenilia that document a young visual artist slowly coming into mastery of her drafting skills, composition and overall style.

But although she continued to paint until her untimely death at age 39, the shy, slyly humorous student who drew those gag panels instead grew up to become Flannery O'Connor, one of the greatest fiction writers of the 20th century.

It's intriguing then, if less than revelatory, to page through Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons, which compiles those high school and college illustrations for the first time, and note the particulars of her youthful artistic chops. In his introduction, illustrator Barry Moser directs our attention to the naively stylized but consistent way she represents the human figure, and her deft grasp of how much to exaggerate a gesture to achieve a comic effect. Editor Kelly Gerald, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on these cartoons, spends a few pages of her afterword cataloging affinities between O'Connor's visual approach and those of her cartooning influences: James Thurber, John Held Jr. and others. (The reader will detect, in Gerald's essay, the doctoral student's eager propensity to draw more parallels than strictly necessary to make a given point.)

Flannery O'Connor authored <em>Wise Blood</em>, <em>The Violent Bear It Away</em> and several short stories. She died in 1964.
/ Courtesy of Fantagraphics
Courtesy of Fantagraphics
Flannery O'Connor authored Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away and several short stories. She died in 1964.

But to focus entirely on O'Connor's linework is to miss the true insights these works afford. Because of course they aren't still lifes or anatomy studies, they're gags. Which is to say: stories, often darkly funny ones, distilled to their essence — captured in a snapshot and usually accompanied by a droll description or characterizing bit of dialogue. What better training ground for a fiction writer?

As Gerald notes, later in life O'Connor was fond of telling aspiring writers that a background in the visual arts — drawing in particular — was particularly useful for those seeking to imbue stories with enlivening detail. "Anything that helps you to see," she'd tell them. "Anything that makes you look."

And what did young Flannery O'Connor see on the campus of her all-girl high school and college? Lots of things ripe for gentle — and sometimes less than gentle — lampooning.

Pretension, for example: In one linocut, two young girls regard a painting in a gallery as one remarks to the other, "I don't enjoy looking at these old pictures either, but it doesn't hurt my reputation for people to think I'm a lover of fine arts." In another, a birdlike girl stands at a podium, striking an accusatory pose: "I believe the totalitarian outlook of the aggressive minority in the educational-governmental faction should be crushed," she says, "and if I am elected sixth vice recording secretary, I shall bend every effort to crush it."

The daily grind of campus life was a common subject: O'Connor depicts a scrum of bodies at the campus bookstore as a riot of splayed limbs and scowling, screaming heads, and pairs it with the caption "Business as Usual."

The satire is a good deal more safe and circumspect than the lacerating humor for which her stories would become known, but that's understandable. It would have been tough for her to sneak any gag that demonstrated the raw-boned ruthlessness on display in stories like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" past the faculty of a teacher's college in the mid-'40s.

O'Connor's lifelong obsession with birds figures only slightly in these cartoons, and there's no trace of the Catholic themes that would pervade her fiction, given that O'Connor attended a public high school and college. The violence that so fascinated her — or at least the threat of it — does lurk in many of these panels, however, as in the linocut depicting a girl pausing during her archery practice to gaze at a passing formation of WAVES (the Women's Naval Reserve Enlisted Corps, some 15,000 of which took over O'Connor's quiet college campus from 1943 to 1945). The accompanying caption: "Targets Are Where You Find 'Em!"

What emerges is a portrait of a much-beloved artist as a young woman, when the sardonic and even brutal humor behind O'Connor's most memorable creations is still gestating. Clearly, that schoolgirl idly pondering mischief with her bow and arrow is no Hazel Motes (Wise Blood) or Manley Pointer ("Good Country People").

But — and this is what makes Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons such an enlightening read — it's a start.

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Glen Weldon
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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