‘Denys Wortman’s New York’: The Very Heart of the City

In a single panel a street vendor, rendered in the most basic details, looks up at a woman standing on a fire escape. A cart of something indistinct is sketched behind him, his hands are on his hips. The woman says to him, “I have to come down to buy them, you’ll have to come down in your prices.” The man is only a couple of circles, with dots and lines for his features, shading for his clothes. The reader has to have to dive into the image, walk the street a little and smell the flowers or produce on his cart, the salted meats in the nearby butcher shop, before reaching the vendor. The background is mostly simple lines or smudges, but the eye fills in the missing details, searches for those too subtle to see at first, and is consistently rewarded.

Thus rendered and imagined, the single panel becomes an entire story, its modest dimensions an entire world. The story is the day to day life of New Yorkers in the ’30s and ’40s, and the world is Denys Wortman’s.

Wortman worked as a cartoonist for New York’s World Telegram and Sun, among other papers, from the ’20s until his death in the 1958. Wortman’s work has remained under appreciated and largely unknown to readers in the years since his death, but this book by editors James Sturm and Brandon Elston should change that. Sturm, author of The Golem’s Mighty Swing and cofounder/director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, began this project after happening upon an out of print copy of Wortman’s Mopey Dick and the Duke, a collection of his work featuring two hobos that were recurring characters in his “Metropolitan Movies” strip. Sturm contact Wortman’s son, and discovered an archive of the artist’s work and correspondence, much of which was stored in less than desirable conditions.

The book is presented as a single day in New York City, but there’s no central narrative that ties the pieces together, and many of the strips were published years apart from one another. The main thread is the city itself, and her people. Wortman’s New York is the classic version of the city that lives in the imaginations of those of us who have never lived there. There are crowded streets and beaches, people sunbathing on rooftops in the summer, hanging out on the stoop in front of tenement buildings, businessmen barely scraping by as the Depression rages on. Wortman’s soft lines give every image an unfinished quality, keeping their story in motion rather than freezing it in time.

Some panels are staggering in their use of perspective, with buildings rising to the sky and fire escapes jutting out from the brick facades in precise proportions. Wortman’s captions, too, are marvels of construction, each just a sentence or two that captures not just the action in the image, but everything that came before and after. In one panel a woman, standing above her friend on the fire escape outside her apartment, says, “I haven’t had a vacation since I was married, except for those times I was operated on.” It’s a mildly humorous remark that hints at an unknown tragedy, the kind of thing that might create an awkward silence, even between good friends.

Many of Wortman’s cartoons were drawn with no captions in mind. That job often fell to his wife, Hilda, who also took countless reference photos used in his work. In his essay at the beginning of the book, Robert W. Snyder writes that Wortman’s work portrays the vital role women played in every facet of life in New York City, a idea further reinforced by Hilda Wortman’s involvement in her husband’s work.

Sturm notes that, though many of the cartoons are funny, humor wasn’t the primary intent. There are scenes of elderly couples, their faces lined with age and worry, wondering how they’ll pay all their bills, and the sacrifices families had to make during the hardest years of the ’30s. There are scenes of the city’s nightlife, children at play and people standing in bread lines. It’s a staggering experience, much like living in the city at the time must have been.

Another favorite is a drawing of two women knitting as they ride the subway to work. “It’s ten rows to the office and half a sleeve from there to Harry’s.” One imagines Wortman and Hilda walking around the city, sketchbook and camera at the ready, writing down scraps of conversation, getting lost in the city. They were listening to people, getting to know them bit by bit. This book has the positive effect of making one feel bad, at times; bad for popping in the ear buds or talking on the phone, bad for ignoring the rich, wide world that’s right in front of us, each step of our journey, each day.

RATING 9 / 10