The dazzlingly demented Virgil Partch was seemingly born with a drink in one hand and a brush in the other. One of the finest single-panel cartoonists of an American mid-century filled with outstanding single-panel cartoonists, Partch was a remarkably prolific illustrator of the absurd and the profound, the scatological and the existential. With his people that often drawn with a random number of fingers and toes on their hands and feet, Patch's panels often seemed casually thrown-off and spontaneous. Behind that seeming casualness, however lay a thoughtful, intriguing man, a cartoonist who was devoted to his strange craft and who loved the cartoonist's profession. The coffee table book VIP: The Mad World of Virgil Partch celebrates the life and adventures of this very singular creator.
Virgil Partch was born in a place where there were more fur seals than men: tiny St. Paul Island, a miniscule patch of tundra in the middle of the Bering Strait. His father was in the US Navy, his mother the daughter of a missionary; they met and married on that impossibly obscure place. Partch is without a doubt the most famous man to come out of that inhospitable environment.
The family quickly moved off the island, traveling around as Navy families do, before settling in the happy Navy city of San Diego. Virgil was always encouraged by his dad to draw, and he adored telling jokes: as he's quoted in this book, "by the time my father put in his 20 years in the Navy and retired, I was the fastest kid in school with a one-liner." Eventually graduating from high school in Tucson, Partch moved to Los Angeles to be an "in-betweener" in the bustling Disney studio – only to quickly get caught up in the famous Disney strike of 1941.
One afternoon, sitting in a bar near the Disney Studios, Partch met up with a friend who would change the course of his life. Dick Shaw, who also labored at Disney and was a known to bust a great joke any chance he got, took the liberty of sending some of Virgil's cartoons to the big magazines on the East Coast. Partch received encouraging letters, which turned into payments for gag ideas, then to payments for full panels. Partch worked hard rolling out his unique creations at breakneck speed, doing cartooning jam sessions with friends Shaw and Hank Ketchum (who would later create Dennis the Menace) and sending packets of 15 to 20 gags twice a week to the bigtime periodicals of the era.
Eventually fired from Disney and in need of a steady paycheck, Partch became a favorite in the influential magazine Collier's and newspaper PM. By 1944 his first collection was published and Partch was on his way to becoming a huge success.
After serving a two-year stint in the Army, Partch embraced the post-War world of 1946, taking freelance assignments from the most popular magazines of the times, including Look, The Saturday Evening Post and True. Virgil Partch was one of the most well-known cartoonists an in era that appreciated its cartoonists; as writer Jonathan Barli says in this book, "No matter how stinking the jab was, Partch's cartoons were never mean-spirited or cynical. His cartoons were for people who, like Partch himself, never took themselves too seriously."
Partch's panels could be subtle or broad, sophisticated or ridiculous, literal or complex. You can see that unique and charming balance in the pieces on display with this column as you see the master creating comics that were deliberately and specifically his own.
By 1950 Partch's strips were inescapable; nearly every magazine published his panels, not to mention the cigarette lighters and other tchotchkes that contained his work, or the many collections that were published of his work, or the many companies that had "VIP" create advertising for him.
The problem with doing a biography of a person with a career like Partch's is that his personal life was just not very dramatic. He's a man who became successful, without a tremendous amount of struggle or angst, doing the profession that he loved to do. Partch was extremely fortunate, and his comics are brilliant, but his story isn't especially exciting. That makes the pictures in this coffee table book delightful and makes the text simply a stagesetter for the material that's presented. I know it's an absurd statement to say that Virgil Partch is a dull subject of a biography, but aside from a comic strip that didn't quite catch on with the reading public, this world-class cartoonist had the kind of easy life that we all wish we had.
Though Partch's biography is a little dull – aside from his eventful birth and bizarre death – VIP: The Mad World of Virgil Partch is worth picking up just for the wonderful collection of cartoons that Barli includes in it. He gives readers a generous serving of well over a hundred zany images that are delightful, compelling and wonderful relics of a previous era. Barli also bigheartedly gives readers reprints of five different humorous articles that Partch wrote for various magazines over the years. This master cartoonist could write as humorously as he drew.
VIP: The Mad World of Virgil Partch is clearly the product of a devoted fan who was interested in sharing the work of his favorite artist with future generations. I'm glad I had a chance to share Jonathan Barli's love for Virgil Partch. The comics presented in this book are real classics.