The comicbook industry was still in its infancy when the 18 year-old Nick Cardy began working as an artist for the Eisner & Iger studio. The next four years would find him learning his trade in the company of other now-revered storytellers such as Lou Fine, Bob Powell and George Tuska. But with 1943 came the draft, and it would be another three years until Cardy could return to New York and the comics. Ahead of him was the second act of his career as an artist, which would span almost three decades and feature celebrated runs on DC Comic's Tomahawk, Congo Bill, Aquaman, the Teen Titans and Batlash. His was a humane, dynamic and often lushly-romantic style, grounded in the magazine illustrations of the first half of the century and the comic strips of Hal Foster and, of course, Will Eisner. Unjustly under-recognised for the innovative qualities of his later work in particular, his pages share a great deal of the clarity and warmth to be found in the art of John Romita and Curt Swan. Finally opting to focus on the more lucrative and less unnecessarily onerous realm of commercial art in 1974, he left behind the role of DC's leading cover artist. So successful and productive had his cover work been that it took, so Britain's Fantasy Advertiser was told, a team of five others to replace him.
|"5 Mar (1945) / Cologne/ set up tank as roadblock / took turns at guard / and liberated bottles. played Kraut Ellington records. Got drunk"|
The Artist At War is a quietly remarkable collection of the art that Cardy created during his time as an infantry soldier and tank driver. In recording what he saw, Cardy filled "six pads, 3" x 5"... (with) ... twenty or thirty pages to a book". For this collection, selections from those pencil, ink and watercolour sketches have been complimented by photographs and paintings undertaken in post-War Paris. As such, The Artist At War stands as a compelling, vivid and individual evocation of the war as Cardy knew it from moment to often all-too-uncertain moment. As the Second World War inexorably passes from living memory, the everyday experiences of those who lived through it are all too often subsumed by the ever-recycled, media-friendly shorthand version of what actually occurred. Yet what Cardy observed and recorded retains a striking freshness and immediacy, captured as it was for an audience of no-one but the artist and, on occasion, his comrades. This is history as it was experienced rather than as it's all too often been shaped for mass consumption, and that, combined with the unfamiliarity of these previously unpublished pages, makes for compelling reading.
The book begins with a sketch of ships on the Hudson River, completed on the very April Fool's Day that the artist discovered he'd been drafted. On it, the young Cardy recorded that he'd been "... questioned by two mounted policemen" as to why he'd drawn what he had. From that, we follow the paper-trail which marks his journey from the relative comfort of the war's periphery in America into its terrible centre in mainland Europe. It's a progress which shows once again why John H Arnold's famous description of the reality of war has become a cliche. For here are the long periods of boredom as well as the moments of sheer terror; tanks battles as well as haircuts, hospital operations and concerts for the troops, close quarter fighting in ruined towns and long underwear hung out to dry above fires. With no other narrative but his own experience to impose as a structure on the collection, Cardy's art suggests how grindingly normal the business of war must have become to those swallowed up by it. From the most snatched of cartoons to more considered watercolour studies, everything that he portrays seems to be both remarkable and yet entirely mundane too. With what appears to have been the most unhysterical of approaches, Cardy calmly chronicled everyday life as it was experienced by the men of the 3rd Armored Division during Europe's last continent-wide apocalypse.
Cardy admirably avoids any sense of sensationalism in the reminiscences which accompany his art too. His was, after all, not a generation that was typically accustomed to expressing its thoughts and feelings about such intensely personal experiences. In that restraint lies much of the book's appeal. When the artist describes famished families seeking out accidentally slaughtered horses, or tank commanders decapitated by enemy snipers, it's with an eye on the facts rather than the importance of his role as an observer. In characteristically removing his ego from events, Cardy inspires the reader to step as best as is possible into his shoes. Most of us who try to do so will suspect that we wouldn't have been able to either record or recall events with such equanimity, accuracy and decent-heartedness
Those with any interest at all in the period will find a great deal here that's both telling and touching. Comics aficionados will in addition be able to value The Artist At War for all that it tells us about Cardy's development in a period from which little has ever been seen before, beyond a single chapter in John Coastes' The Art Of Nick Cardy. In its handsome, hardbacked form, and with its content bolstered by interviews by Alex Deuben and editor Renee Witterstaetter, The Artist At War is undeniably worth your attention. For a while at least, the reader may it hard not to look at long-familiar streets and fields, rivers and buildings, without thinking of how swiftly the most familiar aspects of our lives can be utterly transformed by war.
Nick Cardy: The Artist At War, by Nick Cardy & Renee Witterstaetter, Titan Books, 2013