Jess: Amping up Chester Gould’s pictorial weirdness to 11

News Section, Reviews

December 19th, 2012


(Review) O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica

The Comics Journal



Even among those familiar with contemporary art history, the relationship between comics and so-called “high art” is often limited to a few superficial talking points, boiling down to the early token recognition of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat as great art and the wholesale and arguably condescending swipes of the Pop artists–particularly Roy Lichtenstein. Fortunately for all involved, the story is more complicated than that. Artists like the late Swede Oyvind Fahlstrom or Scotland’s Eduardo Paolozzi created complex works that honored original comic creators while looking to the medium’s innovations in pictographic language as extensions of the parameters of Modern Art. Europe was way ahead of America in recognizing the medium’s legitimacy, in a broad popular sense as well as in academia and the art world.

But there were pockets of brilliance in the USA too. One of the greatest-ever fine art interrogations of the funny pages has to have been Tricky Cad, created by the San Francisco artist Jess (Collins) between 1952-1959. An eight-episode series of cut-ups made entirely out of fragments of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the five known extant collages have been collected and reproduced at a legible size for the first time ever in O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica edited by LA-based art writer Michael Duncan and published by Siglio Press—who also released a stellar 2008 collection of NY artist Joe Brainard’s decades-long body of work deconstructing Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy.


Jess, detail from Tricky Cad, Case VII, 1959. Collage, 19 x 7 inches (original single sheet). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Gift of Bruce Conner. Copyrighted by the Jess Collins Trust.

Tricky Cad is remarkable on a number of levels. For starters, Jess takes advantage of the ultra clean-line graphics of Gould’s grotesque cop-opera to amp up the pictorial weirdness to 11. Almost every panel stands as a tiny surrealist composition reminiscent of (and clearly inspired by) German Dadaist Max Ernst’s seminal collaged graphic novels of the 1920s and ’30s. Perspective and scale are thrown to the wind. A giant hand holding a key protrudes through a doorway into a dark and frozen meat locker, asking “Too High?” But in spite of its dream logic, Jess’s distortions of appropriated mass media imagery are at once more intelligible, more culturally current, and more laugh-out-loud absurd than Ernst’s.

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