Denys Wortman’s Great Depression-Era “Funnies”

Denys Wortman (1887-1958) was one of the great comic strip page chroniclers of the Great Depression.  While most well-known for the depiction of his Hooverville residents, the down-and-out Mopey Dick and the Duke, Wortman employed a rich and poignant cast of city characters, from young working women and tenement children, to organ grinders looking to make a few cents and kibitzers sitting on apartment building stoops.  Titled Metropolitan Movies in its largest paper, the New York World, the panel cartoon was known as Everyday Movies in many, if not all the other newspapers it appeared in.  While the setting took place in and around a city that looked a lot like New York City, the Great Depression affected the lives of people across the country in similar ways, so no matter where readers lived, they could relate.

Denys Wortman at the Drawing Board

Wortman is closely associated with Metropolitan Movies and the characters Mopey Dick and Duke, but he was not the first artist to work on the panel cartoon  He was actually the sixth (and last) cartoonist to work on the feature as far as we can tell.  Metropolitan Movies was started by the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Rollin Kirby in 1913, followed by George Rehse, the great left-wing editorial cartoonist Robert Minor, Gene Carr, New Yorker cartoonist Oscar Howard, and finally Wortman, who began working on the feature in 1926, until its demise in 1954.

Denys Wortman was right out of the Ashcan School of drawing, with gritty depictions of city life conveyed via his pen, brush, and most often, lithographic crayon.  Wortman listened to his teacher Robert Henri’s words and paid attention to the world around him.  He employed an expressive gestural approach in his drawing, which gave a liveliness to his figures and settings, while maintaining enough weight to give them a sense of reality.  That reality was sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant, and sometimes heartbreaking.  When Wortman wanted to convey something heartfelt, he did not mince words or lines.  He got straight to the matter in a way that yanked at the readers’ heartstrings. 

The reality of Wortman’s settings were not pulled out of thin air.  His wife, Hilda Renbold Wortman (1899-1992), was an excellent photographer and provided the basis for many of her husband’s cartoons in the thousands of photographs that she shot.  She has a wonderful eye for composition and some of the quirky angles found in her husband’s drawings are derived directly from her photographs.  The Wortman’s son, also named Denys, talked about his mother’s contribution to his father’s work:  “She would sit on park benches and listen to the conversations around her, reporting back to my father the phrases and conversations that she overheard. From these and other captions, he would create the image, the atmosphere and the surrounding that would communicate the idea visually.”  Along with the images that Hilda Wortman provided, she also helped provide the context for the scenes, putting the meat on the bones of the cartoons.

Photograph by Hilda Renbold Wortman

You can see the soul of a printmaker in Denys Wortman’s drawings, with that lithographic crayon line and mark that creates mass, movement, expression, and atmosphere.  Sometimes Wortman would use the point of the litho crayon to help emphasize or amplify the ink lines in the piece.  Other times he would use the side of the litho crayon, creating broad swaths of tone in the forms and spaces.  When all of his approaches married, it was a gritty city symphony; the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded Wortman and his wife.  More than that, it was authentic.  And that authenticity was recognized by the tens of thousands of people who lived those lives, and who could relate to the cartoons.  Denys Wortman was their voice, speaking of a reality that not everyone wanted to see, but one that everyone had to see.

“Well, as usual, Duke, we kin be thankful we ain’t had any financial set-backs this year.”

Such beautiful drawing in this panel cartoon from November 24, 1931. Wortman creates almost sculptural forms of Mopey Dick and the Duke, with a poignant gag in the middle of the Great Depression. The gag, of course, is that the characters had no financial setbacks because they had no finances.  Besides all that, there’s a great cat in the window.

“No, I wouldn’t give you anything, but I’ll let you have a suit very cheap.”

This poignant panel, from March 4, 1933, depicts an organ grinder going store to store, literally with his hat in his hand.  The store owner won’t give him anything for his troubles, but offers to sell him a suit, cheap.  The drawing is quite different than the first one pictured.  It’s a more expressively drawn piece, with a changing line weight that helps convey the atmospheric perspective of the street/city scene, at the same time showing a certain grittiness of the place.

“That man was ready to give up his throne for the woman he loves, and YOU
won’t even go down to the corner for a loaf of bread!”

I love cartoon art that reflects issues and events contemporary to their creation, and this piece from December 31, 1936, is such an example.  When the wife says, “…that man….”, she’s referring to King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American who was unacceptable to the monarchy.  The drawing has that wonderful rambling sort of structure that Wortman excelled at, and the wife’s body language is particularly fine.

“Such a gorgeous home my daughter has, I’m telling you.  You could go into a department
store and look around and you wouldn’t find one single thing she hasn’t got in her house.”

Street-level kibitzers, something Wortman had a great ear and eye for.  This drawing from May 24, 1941, has wonderful figure drawing and weight to it.  The women anchor the foreground, allowing the small details in the background to not get too busy.  But those details add to the sense of environment and space.  The gag also shows the Wortmans’ ear for dialect.

“After all, there’s no use denying jobs are scarce.  Even a good scab can’t find work now.”

A pretty straight-forward, poignant cartoon from April 6, 1938, reflecting the common strike-breakers of the day.  Wortman’s drawing shows that structured gesture that he pulled off so well.  The man on the left seems weightier because of the darker tones, and the guy on the right has an almost Giacometti-like structure to him. 

“Gee Mopey, I’d like to turn myself loose in here with a dollar sometime.”

This drawing of Mopey Dick and the Duke is pretty much one of the nicest I’ve seen of the characters.  Wortman really pushed the weight of the figures, adding wonderful details throughout the drawing.  And the gag is perfectly suited to the dire times in the Great Depression.  Lovely work all the way around.  May 27, 1938.

“This is no kitchenette apartment.  This is supposed to be the living room, but it’s really the
dining room and it smells like the kitchen.”

Wortman’s drawings of working women show a slice of reality not seen in the song and dance movies of the period.  This cartoon, from October 7, 1935, shows two women in a small New York apartment, with the one with the teapot bemoaning the state of her kitchenette.  Wortman went with a strong contour line on the figures and objects in this drawing, all supported by a good range of tones for weight.  The two-point perspective really adds to the cramped quality of the space.

“My daddy says you can use his shoes to look for work today, ‘cause he’s sick today and doesn’t need ‘em.”

This is one of those sadly sweet panels by Wortman.  The little girl seems so darn happy to be able to bring her father’s shoes to the neighbor, but for the adults, the gag is heart-wrenching.  Just look at the body language of the father. Dated November 23, 1931, the drawing is starkly beautiful, showing the dinginess of the apartment, with just enough light to leave the space just shy of depressing.  In the end, the little girl’s smile lights up the dingy room. 

“Don’t cry, baby.”

The three-word caption in this 1933 panel helps to convey the reality of these children’s situation in their tenement life.  Shadowy, grimy and dingy may be the best ways to describe the space of the drawing, and if one saw this on the newspaper page in 1933, the reader could not help but be moved by their situation.  The motion seems slow and painful, as does the stark reality of their lives.  Wortman reused this scene about 20 years later, flipping the composition horizontally and turning it into a Thanksgiving-themed piece.

Denys Wortman was great friends with the American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton.  Benton maintained a studio on Martha’s Vineyard and the two artists knew each other well.  In 1950, Benton was painting a portrait of Wortman.  Wortman, an energetic fellow by all accounts, had a very hard time staying still, so Benton encouraged him to do a portrait of Benton.  In 1953, the editor at Collier’s saw the paintings in Benton’s studio and asked for the story behind them.  That story wound up in the pages of Collier’s in the October 16 issue, dramatized for effect.  In part:

’’When savages duel, they tear one another to shreds with whatever monstrous weapons are at hand. But civilized gentlemen are not so crude. Their tiffs are fought with pointed words, barbs of wit, or deft ideas that draw no blood.

“Thomas Hart Benton, of Kansas City, Mo., is one of America’s most famous fine artists. Denys Wortman is a cartoonist, the creator of ‘Mopey Dick and the Duke,’ a widely syndicated newspaper cartoon. Benton and Wortman have been meeting at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., near a place called Beetlebung Corners for the past 30 summers. They are great friends. But beetle-browed Tom Benton is a spirited soul who likes nothing better than a fight. Last month he challenged the placid Mr. Wortman to the most sophisticated duel since medieval poets flung verses at one another: He suggested that they oppose artistic talents in a match to see which of them could produce the better portrait of the other.

“Wortman was reluctant, but he says: ‘Sitting for hours with that pirate glowering at me with his super analytical stare and his sketchbook was too much for me. I had to defend myself.’

“The results of the momentous duel appear on these pages. To a wrestling referee, it probably doesn’t look like much of a battle, but an art critic who has seen the portraits writes: ‘The two paintings demonstrate impressive facility in technique, tremendous power, and extraordinary balance of subject matter with philosophical intent.’ Translation: Man, wotta fight!”

The top portrait below depicts Wortman by Thomas Hart Benton, and the second piece is the Wortman painting of Benton.  Both paintings are quite good, and Wortman really shows off his Ashcan School color chops in his portrait of Benton.

Denys Wortman by Thomas Hart Benton, 1950
Thomas Hart Benton by Denys Wortman, 1950

Denys Wortman was one of the truly great chroniclers of American city life before, during, and after the Great Depression.  He put a face to the faceless masses and gave voice to those who had no way to amplify their voices.  While sometimes funny and sometimes somber, Wortman’s work always felt authentic, which is what allowed it to connect to his audience, no matter what segment of the population they were from.

Rob Stolzer

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer teaches art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he teaches Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting.

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