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Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972
posted September 5, 2013
Willard Mullin, Hal Bock, Michael Powers, Bob Staake, Bill Gallo
Fantagraphics, hardcover, 240 pages, 2013, $35.
This is a beautiful-looking book, thorough and affectionate in its treatment of the cartoonist Willard Mullin and his coverage of the sport for which he is best known: baseball. That's a positive because it's difficult to imagine any such book coming out a half-generation from now, not the way that baseball has slipped from the public imagination -- particularly old-timey baseball. I'm hard pressed to think of anything similar with such a clear, century-passing break to it, the kind of thing where discussion of it seems odd now and can only become even more so. Perhaps the ubiquity of the American Civil War and its veterans in the imagination of the first 15 years of the 20th Century comes close. Baseball feels old in its current formulation, ill at ease with modern highlight-driven peak experiences and the culture of celebrity whose churn drives nearly all media. Through the eyes of someone like Mullin, with his graceful portraits of folks like Babe Ruth and Stan Musial, the sport seems thousands of years old. An artifact. A time capsule.
Mullin had craft chops to spare no matter the summary judgment of Walt Kelly to the contrary (a funny anecdote related near the book's beginning). What may surprise is the range of cartooning approaches he'd use. There are a number of cartoons dominated by a loose, rough, reduced-on-the-page style that in an age where so many cartoonists lack visual skill using a single approach speaks well of the care he took to his craft. In a sense, his ability to draw these well-rendered images hangs over the cartoons like a club, something that brings the audience to heel and quiets down the critics. Athletes of the era in which Mullin worked were flattered by that approach -- his ballplayers don't seem larger than life in the way that modern jocks do, they seem like slightly harder men, dads and grandfathers, people that work for a living. The books also features a more sophisticated approach to some of the news stories than conventional wisdom might have it, which suggests that the lighter touch, the legend-making, was a choice of presentational mode rather than some sort of defect of an innocent age. It's the option to look at things that way that we miss, not for the denial of reality but because it helps to see thing in a variety of ways so that we may better understand them.