"Like rainbow tints in the spray are the hues that splash and pour from its lightning cylinders"

*This is only tangentially comics-related, but I think fans of those old-timey strips will find much to enjoy...

The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911)

It was born in those days when men believed in rugged honesty, before the days of quackery and pretense, and it has kept its way unheeding and improving amid a thousand peering little imitators. It has never paid for a testimonial, never advertised cheap claptrap, nor published a misstatement of fact in order to sell itself.”

- A nostalgia-tinged advertisement for crisp, clear Ayer’s Sarsaparilla - which don’t you know is a fine ‘blood purifier’ - from the magazine section of the Sunday, April 2, 1899 edition of the New York World.

This large (13.9 x 12.6), beautiful 144-page hardcover book was first released in 2005, though I’m just getting around to it now. It is truly worth the thirty or so bucks you'll find it going for online, but don't even let the full cover price of $50 spook you away. I would advise you not to wait much longer than I did to partake of its riches - beyond the fine, rare works included from the likes of comics legends R.F. Outcault, George McManus, and George Herriman, the book is simply packed with strange innovation, curious novelty, powerful drawing, glamorous (if minuscule) prose, and the sort of effortless period flavor that can only every truly be evoked by an established popular institution of the period under study.

Said period is evident from the book’s title, though the institution deserves added explanation; you’ve doubtlessly heard of Joseph Pulitzer, and perhaps his famous newspaper the New York World, which was essentially three papers in one, boasting a Morning, Evening, and Sunday edition. The Sunday World was a street-level marvel of its day, sold on every corner of the city, sporting advanced color printing, advanced graphic capabilities, and scads of art, human interest, scandal, sensationalism, and starry-eyed futurism. It is said that in its salad days, the totality of the World was one of the two most widely read publications on the planet, the other being the Christian Bible.

Yet, in an irony only available to such a gargantuan monument to disposable virility and prolificacy, there are very few complete archives of the World available for perusal today. Throughout the 20th century, hardcopy archives of such disposable artifacts (never valued for the historic record as much as the New York Times and other, more subdued, ‘proper’ papers) were tossed out or sold for scrap in favor of b&w microfilm records - as a result, it is remarkably difficult to come by original World materials from which to conduct study, or strike higher-quality modern reproductions of its many graphic delights. The book at hand is the work of Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, spouses who took it upon themselves to form the American Newspaper Repository and raise $150,000 to purchase seven thousand bundles & bound volumes of vintage American newspapers from the British Library, who were planning to dispose of much of their hardcopy stock. Included was a well-preserved stash of the World, which now resides Duke University, though before the materials left their hands Baker & Brentano took some pictures in the interests of putting together a showcase for the best of the World’s art - the present volume.

And it is gorgeous, often surprising art, usually one full World sheet provided per page, though spreads are set out over two. It's important to note up front that the book appears to be more concerned with the appreciation of graphic design and pure image splendor than providing easy reading of pages from the World; the title alone suggests this, but the notion is reinforced by the margins of image and text sometimes becoming trapped in the book's center, and the size of the text itself being a bit too small to easily peruse. This is a large book by today's standard, but it cannot quite compare to the magnitude of the actual World, which brandished its own images at roughly three times the size of what we get - if you actually want to read, say, Mark Twain's My First Lie and How I Got Out of It, or any of Harriet Hubbard Ayer's Health and Beauty Hints (a potion to stall hair loss: "Cologne, 8 oz; tincture of cantharides, 1-2 oz.; oil of English lavender, oil of rosemary, 1-2 dram each."), you'll have to squint pretty hard. Oddly, we're occasionally given a page of pure text to look at, perhaps a selection from the Want Directory, and the overall effect is one of simply admiring the amount of all those job listings rather than what's in them, though Brentano's captions usually provide a sampling of the good bits.

Such captions appear on nearly every page, and Brentano is an informed, articulate guide (co-author Baker handles the Introduction), prone to doling out little biographical sketches of many of the artists and writers employed by the World, and directing the reader to small image details and bits of business they might have missed (an ad for Atlantic Rye Whiskey positioned directly below a notice regarding a miracle Curse of Drink cure, for instance). All of the book's provided World pages are set out in chronological order along the years in the title (1911 marked the death of Pulitzer himself), allowing for both a certain historical wideview and some nice bits where succeeding pages from one edition of a certain section are provided back-to-back, to give the reader a feeling of how the actual paper flowed. But almost always are there visuals, drawings usually preferred to photographs at the time, the use of color sometimes amazingly subtle.

It's not just comics and political cartoons in here, though there's plenty of that. You'll get to enjoy the fascinating collage effects of L.L. Roush, an array of decorative features (at the height of the Spanish-American War, a full page in the Magazine Section was devoted to graphically demonstrating exactly how large the guns of the U.S. Navy where - oh, and needless to say you'd best be prepared for rampant jingoism and some ugly racial caricatures), reproductions of the latest hits in painting and fashion, innovations in night photography, and even the birth of what we'd now call 'Cine-Manga': a 1900 experiment in setting frames from a pair of Mutoscope comedies out as comic strips, complete with captions on the bottom. One gets the feeling that an awful lot of experiments were conducted in those loose days, largely because the newest technologies were still being used to build a new identity for the World, and thus everything had to be tried before a status quo could be fathomed.

There's even interactivity! Readers of the World were invited to build their own zoetrope devices (in the manner of the later, and heavily period-influenced Acme Novelty Library), sew the latest designs from included Pink Sheet patterns, clip out finger puppets of famous boxers (one illustration of which seems to result in the demonstrating hand flipping the bird to the reader), and even make use of Charles W. Saalburg's innovative process to print ink that would easily lift from the page to transform parts of thee World into paint boxes and Easter Egg patterns.

It's a world of novelty, to bring Chris Ware into it once again, the news adorned with lurid first-person accounts of suicide (via discovered death notes) and ad hoc comics with titles like "The Present Kite-Flying Craze and What May Come of It." There's all the odd sights one might expect to see, like a photo of a 25-year old Winston Churchill aiding his mother in starting a magazine, or an artist's anticipatory rendition of an upcoming airship race. An unknown artist prepares a glorious turquoise & black drawing of men from the New York Technology Club drinking Liquid Sunshine (water spiked with sulphate of quinine and radium), their cups a pure newsprint white as isolated among the deeper hues. The beauty of technology indeed, and a strong symbol of the spirit and folly to be spotted in these thankfully preserved pages.