The Way of the Juggler

The Juggler of Our Lady and Talking Lines by R.O. Blechman

The Juggler of Our Lady (published in 1953) was a signpost on the way to the “graphic novel,” like Freeman’s It Shouldn’t Happen, Dunn’s East of Fifth, and Gropper’s Alley Oop. All of these books were “graphic novel” anomalies done long before any one ever dreamed up that awful term.

–“Introduction by Seth,” Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman.

Awful indeed. And now, the ubiquitous “graphic novel” is being used to refer back to earlier works, in the process broadening its historical reach. But Seth is right—The Juggler of Our Lady is unique as an early example of extended graphic narrative, and as the predecessor for great things to come by R.O. Blechman, now hailed as one of the greats of cartoon storytelling.

Talking Lines (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010) is a selected retrospective of Blechman’s work, dated from a series of one-page “silent cartoons” published in the magazine Humbug in 1957-58, up to the two-page “The Birth of the Croissant and the Bagel” published in the New York Times in 2009—though the stories are not included in chronological order. At least as interesting as the works themselves is Blechman’s commentary included at the beginning of each selection, which provides additional context for the stories in their republished format.

Blechman’s vignettes may be likened to whimsical modern cartoon fables. His tales function on an allegorical level, as children’s fiction for adults, if you like. In the preface to a later edition of The Juggler of Our Lady by Maurice Sendak (which itself was originally printed in an extended format in R.O. Blechman: Behind the Lines (Hudson Hills, 1980), Sendak salutes the “fierce, first freshness” of the “child view” that Blechman possesses. Sendak acknowledges Blechman as a tremendous inspiration at a time when the creator of Where the Wild Things Are was still discovering his own artistic voice.

Personally, I find that more important than labeling the actual style of Blechman’s work is the fact that his first widely recognized story is a tale about juggling. Yes, of course, The Juggler of Our Lady is about more than just juggling. But as a juggler, this tale is especially resonant to me, since the greatest gift that juggling can bring to its practitioner is the joy of juggling for its own sake—or in the case of Cantalbert, juggling for higher, divinely inspired purpose. Perhaps the two inspirations are not so different…

For all the lofty interpretation that can be (and has been) attributed to The Juggler of Our Lady, the cartoons in Talking Lines address such weighty issues as the Vietnam war, the US military-industrial complex, the destruction of single occupancy apartment buildings in Manhattan in the 1960s and 1970s, and illegal phone tapping by the U.S. government. On a lighter note, “Magicat” is a story inspired by Jeane Dixon’s horoscope readings. Magicat is accompanied by a cockroach named Cornelius—perhaps this unlikely combination is a silent nod to Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel, illustrated by George Herriman. There are many more stories in addition to those mentioned, including the previously unpublished “Georgie” (1992), a story about “starting fresh” that spans the last one hundred-plus pages of the book. The last piece, “Reflections,” is an apt ending to a fifty year career retrospective. Blechman musingly remarks, “This really happened. A few years ago I looked in my mirror and my grandfather appeared. In my mirror!”

The unsteady line, deceptively perfected, is found throughout Blechman’s stories is unnerving in its simplicity. At a first glance, it lets us know that we, too, can be cartoonists if we only find the courage to believe in the worth of our stories and our motor skills, however unrefined. We don’t need to fill up the page with exquisitely rendered illustration—Blechman gives us permission to populate the page with sometimes-infinitesimal doodles. Though to reach Blechman’s level of artistry doing so would take a lifetime.

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