NEWSPRINT - This book is The visual chronicle of an obscure illustrator, working in an obscure city, mainly for some obscure local newspapers some 20 to 40 years ago, in order to pay his rent. One may reasonably expect a book like this to be little more than an unremarkable vanity project, but J. Daniel Abel worked hard to do better than that. Few illustrators bother to compile their work once it’s paid for since it’s all topical stuff anyway, rarely worth remembering. Abel, apparently, thought well enough of his his old pot-boilers, and exerted some effort to preserve them.
This alone, of course, does not make them any good, but most examples selected for this book seemed worth the bother and none were devoid of interest.
To begin with Abel was, and probably remains, an eccentric and an eclectic. Durer, and MAD magazine, R. Crumb and Rembrandt, Möebius and Daumier, all are all referenced in his graphic art and wickedly scrambled, not always seamlessly. However, he does manage to draw with his own pen, and his marks would be hard to mistake for anyone else’s. He is a stylist, but any exact style is tricky to pin down.
He worked hard at descriptive, realist technique when it was demanded apparently, but an expressionist impulse breaks the surface now and then, as though he’s trying to play it straight for the editor who writes his paycheck, but can’t quite keep himself from making a face behind the bosses back.
The first examples are indeed hesitant, as the artist himself admits, stipple dotted affairs that still manage to mix textures with line work in a way that does well enough. Later he throws the stippling away and develops his line work exclusively. "Development" is a big word in this chronological set. Abel is not happy doing one thing one way. The early work is a bit tight and finicky, the later work broader and far more assured. Abel seems to have used commercial art to pay for a deliberate evolution in his graphic style.
This collection is almost entirely old-school pen and ink drawing because newspaper reproduction in those days was cheap and crude, but the naked pen is a demanding tool. It compels concentration and effort from a serious artist as does no other media. It seems to have pushed Abel to drawing a bit better than he could draw, at least sometimes. His very best line work might survive comparison with that of Möbius. At other times he falls back on generations and cartoon animation shortcuts, possibly owing to hard deadlines.
He seems to feel the work he did illustrating a classical music column for two years in the mid 90s was his best effort, and I guess it was. A pen portrait of Aaron Copeland is a clinic in classical cross-hatching and a poignant human statement about a very complex American genius. Some later work, for a never published graphic novel, is perhaps a shade better and certainly more bitingly cynical.
The graphics have dated pretty well for their now considerable age. Abel tips his hat to a few graphic fashions, current back in the day, but was absorbed by none of them.
To sum up, this collection is far better than anyone might have any right to expect from such an unpromising combination of circumstances, decades ago. M.P.
Paperbound - 94 Pages - 150+ Reproductions - B/W