Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist
Edited by Gary Groth
There’s a picture of the cartoonist in his early 20s, standing knee deep in wolf carcasses, holding two more fresh kills stretched lifeless from his hands. He’s standing in front of a Model T in a flat clap and a bowtie, looking snazzy in that signature early century style, as though he’s just emerged from the top of a flag pole or a phone booth crammed with college students.
He’s not smiling, exactly, but it seems fairly clear from the look on his face that he harbors a sense of pride in the pile of carcasses before him.
This is Norman Pettingill in 1918, a man in his natural element—a trapper, a hunter, and a fisherman first, the artist grew up in the back woods of northern Wisconsin, and these are themes that dominate his work.
Pettingill is, not surprisingly, aself-taught artist. After all, it’s hard to imagine that there existed too many opportunities for a formal training in fine arts, given his upbringing as the son of a trapper. It’s a fact clearly reflected in the cartoonist’s work, as well, seemingly beholden to no particular logic, save for that which is self-imposed.
Really, it’s hard to know what to make of Backwoods Humorist, the first time you flip through its lovingly-curated pages. I first glanced through the book at SPX. I fell in love with it almost immediately, first caught completely off guard by the amateurish art in a book compiled by Fantagraphics. Why, precisely had the publisher chosen to compile these works in such a beautiful volume?
There is, however, something disarmingly bewitching amongst Pettingill’s grostesque caricatures of country life. The work of Basil Wolverton immediately comes to mind, staring at jagged buck teeth, wayward body hair, and superfluous corn cob pipes—not that Pettingill is anywhere near as skilled a draughtsman as the Lena Hyena creator, but there’s something charming in the unevenness of his craft.
I was told, holding the book, that the Pettingill’s work, primarily available through region postcards, had been “discovered” by Johnny Ryan. I pondered briefly aloud the possibility that the contents of the book were, in fact, part of some JT Leroy-esque bit of fakery perpetrated by Ryan himself, only to be assured that Fantagraphics had done some serious research into the life and work of Pettingill.
And sure enough, it’s all included here. There’s a foreword by Leslie Umberger, the senior curator of exhibitions and collections at the John Michael Kohler Art Center, an archivist of Pettingill’s work. Fanta head Gary Groth, meanwhile, lays out a biography of the cartoonist, littered with photographic evidence (and plenty of the aforementioned animal carcases). Ryan offers up the “appreciation” in the back of the book, telling the story of how he first stumbled upon Pettingill’s work through a friend of a friend.
There’s even an introduction by the great Robert Crumb, who published some of Pettingill’s work in Weirdo in the 80s, subsequently acting as a bit of a sporadic pen pal with the hunter/cartoonist.
It’s easy to see why an artist like Crumb would be so utterly fascinated by Pettingill’s style. What begins as a sort of morbid curiosity at something so outside the mainstream quickly develops into an appreciation for a cartoonist who, while leading something of a double life, is clearly devoted to his craft, creating highly detailed, heavily hatched works.
Pettingill regularly switches between cartoons and earnest nature drawings, investing the same in nearly every piece presented here, even those that would be tossed of as quick gags by less invested artists. But even as an appreciation of sorts grows, the curiosity never really dies, and like a Henry Darger painting, back story only adds to the fascination.
In the great scheme of 20th century art, it’s difficult to imagine that Pettingill’s work will ever be regarded as much more than an somewhat high profile curiosity. For those seeking to discover an utterly fascinating body of work, however, that curiosity is certainly worth the price of admission.