Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons
Kelly Gerald, Editor
(Fantagraphics, July 16)
Flannery O’Connor’s biography is often abbreviated to the details most typical of the Southern Gothic literary style, as though O’Connor were one of her own characters. There’s the oddness of her serious bird raising, her devout Catholicism, her diagnosis of Lupus and the tragedy of her early death. In this sense, her cartoons, collected in the newly released Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons, serve a valuable documentarian purpose in that they illuminate an oft-overlooked part of O’Connor’s life. Before O’Connor became known by her middle name, “Flannery,” which she thought sounded more serious and masculine, she was known as Mary O’Connor: local cartoon talent and aspiring journalist.
Let’s get this matter out of the way: there’s a good reason it took so long for someone to collect and distribute the cartoons O’Connor did while a student at the Georgia State College for Women. In the collection’s introduction illustrator Barry Moser describes O’Connor’s cartoons as “coarse,” “done inside an hour’s time,” and “naïve in their craftsmanship.” But what her cartoons lack in refinement they compensate for with sharp humor and a consistent aesthetic that readers of GSCW publications would have recognized as O’Connor’s. One of her recurring targets were the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), who served as part of the Navy during WWII and were stationed at college campuses across America, including GSCW. O’Connor used war imagery to express the antagonism between WAVES and students: “Traffic” depicts a student climbing a tree to avoid being trampled by a group of marching WAVES. In “Targets Are Where You Find ‘Em!” a student-archer considers aiming her arrow at a group of WAVES, a temptation that is later realized in the darker “Counter-Attack.”
Most of O’Connor’s cartoons are linocuts, which is a variant of woodcutting. O’Connor would have heated a block of linoleum, cut it with a knife or a chisel, and then used a roller to ink the remaining relief, which would then be pressed onto fabric or paper. In a very long essay, Kelly Gerard, the collection’s dutiful editor, writes that the linocut process allowed O’Connor to develop a creative process that by the time she turned to fiction was “a reliable route for productivity.” O’Connor once advised students: “The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done.” This process of creating first, asking questions later seems to reflect the limitations of the linocut process, which offers little room for editing. It’s often raining in O’Connor’s depictions of campus, which is tempting to attribute to an emerging sense of the grotesque in the artist’s work, but then, rain is easily depicted by cutting a simple vertical line in the linoleum block. (Only once does O’Connor include a representation of the sun, which appears as an intricate crosshatching of lines in the corner.)
O’Connor once reprimanded a group of students at a Southern Writers’ Conference for writing characters who “spoke as if they had never heard any kind of language except what came out of a television set.” The writing, she said, made no use of “the gifts of the region.” O’Connor emphasized the importance of writing with a sense of “manners,” a term loosely equivalent to what an anthropologist might call cultural behavior, or what one of her characters described as “different ways of doing.” Manners are inherently local, and her cartoons, in subject, have a clear chastity to the characters and culture within the walls of the GSCW campus, a place we can think of as the region where O’Connor first learned her manners.