Jan 12, 2018

The Deep Romance of Nell Brinkley’s Golden Eyes

Nell Brinkley, who died in late 1944, was and is the Queen of Comics. While we tend to emphasize superhero and gag comics in every era, Brinkley’s romances and her humor comics all sold fantastically, and her looks were so influential they not only spawned lookalikes and general terms in the fashion industry, but straight out trademarked accoutrements. Nell Brinkley was big stuff. And, her 1918-19 “Golden Eyes” and Her Hero “Bill”, a comic that ran the full cover of The American Weekly in all Hearst papers of the time, is so full, so gorgeous, both energetic and at once languid, so articulate, that it pains me to think, no matter how good much of the Golden Age boom, twenty years after “Golden Eyes”, the art and the writing were almost completely a step down in terms of technique, breadth, maturity, and human scale.

Golden and Splendid
The Deep Romance of Nell Brinkley’s Golden Eyes
Travis Hedge Coke

The free-wheelin’ quotation marks, revitalized by Jack Kirby in the 1970s, may here, too, appear less than literary, but consider the job they do. They isolate these names and make it clear they are stand ins, they are types, types for which innumerable couples could be swapped in for, not in their precise actions, their specific details, but the broad and most true romance they represent. “Golden Eyes” and Her Hero “Bill” is not only about a woman called Golden Eyes and her Bill, that is, her love; it is the story of us.

This is the language of Brinkley, every trick in the book thrown in where they fit, to build up a bric-a-brac castle that shines in dozens of colors, a myriad of reflective hues and glinting colors. The text is built up from run on sentences, quotation marks, all-caps, italics, breathless descriptions. The images, lush, flowing, conflicting and unified, like the flickers of a fire racing together to form a flame.

An example:

“So it came that 'Golden Eyes’ found her lover’s arms, in a square of a half-shattered, still smiling, French town behind the lines; while the sky of France looked on, and French and British and American eyes, under cap and steel and faded, blue-velvet ‘Blue Devil,’ covered them with envy, and lingered long on the spectacle of their joy. Found them, just for a breathless space set like a rare jewel in the dull metal of ‘Golden Eyes' and ‘Bill,’ long eternity apart, while he waited to go into the big push with his new strange pals and his old ones, and ‘Golden Eyes’ was driving a canteen-supply lorry. ‘Love’ and ‘Uncle Sam’ were speechless and star-eyed.”

That’s fire.

And, the pages look like this:

Jesus! You know?

If her dog doesn’t tear that spy’s throat out, she’s going to jam her parasol’s handle right into his heart. The knitting falling, the beautiful intricacy of her hair and the folds of her dress, those flowers descending down the back, making curls that bring the eye back up. The texture of he wicker chair, the bark on background trees. That dog has personality coming out of his cute little ears! The water jetting from the fountain arcs with implausible ribbon-like elegance. It is immaculate. And, it is also frenetic and messy. So much of what I adore about modern Bill Sienkiewicz’s art, as well as George Perez’s and Emma Rios’ is contained, illumined and poetic, in Brinkley’s use of free-running lines and immaculate jabs of innovation building on each other into unpredictably greater wholes.

As with Sienkiewicz, I have no trouble referring to Brinkley or her work as masterful. I do not know if any influence is direct, nor does it hugely matter. Brinkley set standards. It took comics another four decades or more after her death, to get back to where she was even early in her career. “Golden Eyes” is not a young person’s comic, nor an old fart’s. The comic is “timeless,” in the sense that it remains fresh and strongly affecting now. The fashions are out of date, the techniques and reproduction are older, but the comic remains affecting. It reaches into its audience and transfigures.

We can all be, then or today, “Golden Eyes” or her “Bill.” But, Golden Eyes and Bill, they cannot be replicated. Many artists and authors have built on what Brinkley wrought. Some have deliberately imitated, others merely growing out of the field that came before them. But, “Golden Eyes” and Her Hero “Bill” cannot be done again. We get it one time, perfect and true in itself enough at full strength only once. Lucky for us, that once, is eternal.

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