Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review - Nick Cardy: The Artist at War



Nick Cardy is perhaps best know to comic fans for his work at DC Comics. He was instrumental in establishing Aquaman in his first solo title throughout the 1960's as well as doing the same with the Teen Titans in the 60's and early 70's and helped introduce the enigmatic gunslinger, Bat Lash to the DCU.  Nick was later inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2005.

During the 30's and 40's, Nick was a member of the Eisner & Iger studio. Shortly after that he was called up to fight in World War 2. Even back then Nick was a keen artist and before shipping out for basic he packed his bag with  a number of 3" x 5" drawing pads. During his time in the army Nick sketched scenes of everyday life in the camp before moving on to depict moments before, during and after combat.

It's this body of work that forms the basis of Titan Publishing's book, Nick Cardy: The Artist at War. Join me after the cut to find out what I thought.

Nick Cardy: The Artist at War

By Nick Cardy and Renee Witterstaetter

The first thing that strikes you when reading this book is the reverence given to the material. The book is presented in a landscape format, allowing Nick's work to be featured in a manner befitting its nature. For the most part Nick's original sketches are reproduced at exact size. They are each given a single page (with a few being shrank and featured alongside another on some pages) and are accompanied by either a caption or a full page of text summarising Nick's recollection about when the sketch was done, what he was feeling or going through at the time.  Nick's recollections are evocative setting the scene nicely and add another dimension to the sketches themselves. The text pieces in the book are also nicely bolstered by the addition of an interview with Nick that featured on Comic Book Resources as the book was being compiled.

Nick's initial work shows life during basic training at Camp Blinding in Florida. Here we're treated to sketches and observations of everyday camp life-- officers using the basic shower facilities, opposing teams eating together after a strenuous day of staged battles. There's a keen sense of observation, even in this early work. They're fantastically candid and Nick imbues the work with an incredible sense of place and atmosphere. You can almost hear the small talk in the canteen as your eyes move across the page.

It isn't long before we see Nick beginning to experiment, despite only having the most basic of tools. He begins to use a Watermen fountain pen as well as a pencil, using spit to rub on the ink and add tone to the sketches. Nick mentions in one text piece that he would draw everything out of a basic interest, and admits that the sketches were often quick and that he'd sometimes not finish them. This is evident in some of the sketches but that sense of time and place still remains.

As camp life progressed Nick began to get a reputation amongst the men at the camp as having a degree of artistic talent. This meant he would often sketch likenesses and portraits of officers and enlisted men. These portrait studies are beautifully rendered and show Nick's talent for bringing out character and nuance in his subject. As Nick moves through basic we can also see his skill developing as well. This is capped by a simple but effective self portrait of Nick on night watchman duty, standing in a doorway smoking a pipe (against regulations as he points out) as he looks out at the nearby train yard.

It's around this time that Nick begins to experiment with the tools at his disposal as well as introducing new ones into his repertoire. He talks about taking the Watermen pen and realising that if he drew with the tip upside down he could get fine lines, a broad stroke and heavy shadows on the page. We see this being put into action over the next several sketches, adding a sense of mood and depth to the pictures. Nick also begins to use watercolours and paints culminating in what's perhaps my favourite page in the entire volume-- he and several other soldiers desperately trying to free a truck that has sunk into mud on a training exercise.  We see men dotted round the truck, pushing, pulling and using a line to try and free the vehicle. The whole scene has this beautiful light brown patina to it that really gets across the sense of dirt, grime and the all encompassing mud.

But it's when Nick is moved to the front line that his best work comes to the fore. Combat photographers such as Robert Capa, Don McCullin and Gerda Taro are fascinating people with a body of important work. They were observers and documentarians of armed conflict,  a place where man's darkest impulses and better nature collide on a daily basis.  With his later sketches in this volume, Nick takes on a similar role, albeit one much closer to the action. There are moody depictions of war battered landscapes, beautifully intricate sketches of a tank being shelled on a half destroyed street as a man runs to and fro with a cart scavenging whatever he can. You can see yet another leap in Nick's skill with these sketches. He even admits to taking a little liberty with the scenes, moving vehicles and objects to give the picture a better sense of composition.

These later sketches are accompanied by an interesting development. Nick has gone from an observer to being involved in the events being depicted. There's a sketch of Nick jumping a wall in an effort to dodge gunfire as a tank burns in the foreground of the shot, a watercolour and pencil sketch of an ambush with thick brown smoke hogging the edges of the page as soldiers drag their wounded buddies to safety.

Verdict - Must Read. The volume acts as a well crafted chronicle of a young artist's evolution as he uses the tools at his disposal to capture the events and people in front of him. Alongside that it also serves as a snapshot of an important part of history, one that charts the artists experience with both the quiet, reflective moments and scenes of pure terror and horror.

It's due to this that I'd highly recommend the volume to not only fans of Nick's work but also comic and war historians alike.


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