The Living Planet himself, Jack Kirby, graces the cover of Drew Friedman’s upcoming portrait parade HEROES OF THE COMICS…while a circa-1960 Marx Bros herald the opening reception for the Friedman solo show OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS, at the Society of Illustrators.
Originally published on 13thDimension.com, February 2014
Robert Crumb…that avuncular Nucky Thompson of the comics underworld…stood in awe of his talent and technique. The Times Book Review likened him to Vermeer; Kurt Vonnegut compared him to Goya; Howard Stern said he was better than Picasso. And Joe Franklin elevated him to the pantheon of “the greats” by virtue of an epic lawsuit, about which more in a moment.
There were cautionaries among the compliments, too, with Will Eisner telling him to “lose the dots;” Harvey Kurtzman calling him “nuts” for his labor-intensive pointlllistic detail, and Crumb tempering his words of encouragement with a note of concern about the young artist’s eyesight.
Once even more obsessed with those devilishly detailed “dots” than Little Dot herself, Drew Friedman stippled his last staccato stab of the Croquill pen some twenty years ago — bravely putting aside his signature technique in favor of a watercolor flume-ride that looped crazy circles around the messy, littered carnival of the popular culture. While fans of his earlier, dottier dissections of sad old celebrities and neglected New Yorkers — often featuring the savvy and surreal script contributions of his brother Josh — could still enjoy those grainy, late-night B&W reruns in collections like Warts and All and (recently reissued) Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental, Friedman’s second-act portfolio served to get him noticed like those first glimpses of Color TV in the appliance store window — that cavalcade of unforgettable faces leaving their niche cubbyholes of Raw, Heavy Metal, Weirdo and Screw to go blinking out into the bright lights of a vividly expansive new universe of mass media.
While he may have been regularly picturing Beltway backroomers, Botox’d bimbos and boardroom bigwigs going for the gusto in the pages of everything from The New York Times, New York Observer, Village Voice and The New Yorker to Time, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and that budding-cartoonist grail known as MAD, the man who famously said “Liver spots are my NINAs” never lost his affinity for the weathered and leathered faces of vintage entertainers. Specifically, the Old Jewish Comedians that he lovingly rendered in a series of “BLAB Storybooks” edited by Monte Beauchamp.
Those boys (and a few girls) of the Borscht Belt, burlesque houses and beyond — from Berle, Burns, Benny and Brooks to — uh, Menasha Skulnick? — reside at the big, generous heart of Drew Friedman’s new solo exhibit, also called Old Jewish Comedians and opening at Manhattan’s Society of Illustrators gallery with a reception on the evening of Wednesday, March 5. Populated by people whose faces were cathode-cannoned into his consciousness by a youth spent seining the phantom channels of local New York TV, it’s a kosher keynote to a two-month installation highlighted by an April 24 panel on “The Evolution of Jewish American Comedy” that teams Drew with, among others, Larry (F Troop) Storch.
The son of novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman has another pipelined project to promote, centering around comics of a different discipline — Heroes of the Comics (Fantagraphics), a celebration of the early years of the comic book that ditches the masked mystery men in favor of the dedicated creators who made their adventures pop. Siegel and Shuster, Finger and Kane, Ditko and Kirby, Kurtzman and Wally Wood — to say nothing of Fawcett artist Ma Raboy and cover kingpin L.B. Cole — are all among the 80-plus portraits included in the volume that further features a foreword by Gang of Idiots godfather (and Friend of the Asbury Park ComiCon) Al Jaffee. Like the Comedians series and the single-volume Sideshow Freaks, it’s a genuine labor of love that confers instant Hall of Fame status upon its subjects, by dint of the passionate portraitist who painted them.
Drew Friedman’s magazine-work collection Too Soon? sports an intro by the artist that answers a lot of the questions we’d normally want to ask — from his work chronology and greatest influences, to his pen nib of choice (Hunt No. 4) and his personal pick for “funniest non-Jews who ever lived” (Bob and Ray). The bio page on his website devoted to fine art prints offers a succinct summary as well — and his very entertaining blog ventures wherever it may, from “Godfrey Cambridge’s Rent A Negro Plan” to “The Musical Stylings of Anthony Quinn.”
Your upperWETside Control Voice rang up the ever-industrious Friedman, at the Pennsylvania home he shares with his wife and occasional collaborator Kathy Bidus, plus beagles. Read on…