Mopey Dick and the
Their Life and Times
Please see thumbnails images in "Wortman the Cartoonist" to view Mopey Dick and the Duke cartoons.
PREFACE (extracted with permission from Denys Wortman VIII, and originallly published by Fairchild Publications, Inc. 1952 in the book Mopey Dick and the Duke Their Life and Times)
Mopey Dick and the Duke and I have been intimate friends since we were children. They were born, strangely enough, in the same house where I was born, the parsonage of the Dutch Reformed church in the beautiful and respectable little village of Saugerties-on-the-Hudson where my father was for many years the pastor.
One day when I was about nine years of age I was searching through a neighbor's trash barrel, most glamorous of places, and I came upon a stack of back numbers of the humorous magazine, Puck, of the vintage of 1894-96. My father was a kind and tolerant man and allowed me to keep them, though I knew he thought they were on the vulgar side and that they were read mostly in barber shops, and perhaps sometimes even in saloons.
Those magazines became my most prized possession, and indeed I doubt if I have ever since derived as much pleasure and profit from the ownership of any other thing. I loved everything in them, but outstanding and above all others were those early drawings of tramps by F. Opper that I thought to be the funniest and most beautifully drawn pictures I had ever seen, and the jolliest and most human and delightful characters I had ever met. I know now that they were none other than the parents of Mopey Dick and the Duke.
On the second floor of our house there was an old-fashioned over-sized bathroom whose sole encumbrance was a large tin tub. I set up a drawing table there next to the window and called it "My Studio," and began to copy those pictures from Puck and to make some attempts at original ones of my own, too. Mopey Dick and the Duke were born at that time, although naturally they looked no more like the Mopey Dick and the Duke today than any other child looks like the man he is to become.
Outside of my studio was a harsh and uncomprehending world into which the three of us would suddenly be yanked with admonitions for me to take the ashes out of the cellar, to clean up the mess in the attic, to dry the dinner dishes, or to scrub the dirt from off my face, and hands, and neck, and ears, because company was coming to dinner and I must make a good appearance. Young Mopey and the Duke resented these intrusions as much as I, and I strongly suspect that the future lives of all three of us were conditioned thereby, but differently.
As I look back on these events after a fifty-odd year interim, I can see that The Duke was growing up with an understandable tendency to rebel, whereas Mopey seemed to realize that somebody had to do the dirty work, or at least to see to it that somebody else did, while I, sympathizing with both of them, deemed it most expedient to sit back as unobtrusively as possible and note what happened. Sometimes when the pressure became too great I had to rouse myself from my reveries over the drawing board and do as I was told.
My mother once confided to me that in the months before I was born she had a hope that her child might have a love of beauty, and that though she did not really believe in pre-natal influence, nevertheless she purposely spent many hours in a deliberately devout and rapt contemplation of the great paintings of the world, particularly of some of the Madonnas of Raphael. It must have caused her bitter disappointment and many a pang when at the age of nine I showed her what I was doing and announced that I did not like Art, but that I wanted to be an Illustrator. I remember, too, the look of alarm and genuine pain on the face of my Aunt Annie, who sometimes visited us, when I proudly showed her my childish attempts at drawing. She was agitated and begged me, pleading for reassurance, "Don't you ever see anything but the ugly things in life?"
As I grew up I dilly-dallied and drew pictures on the fly leaves of the text books in three different preparatory schools and two colleges, because "one must have an education first," before I wangled my way into Art School where I had wanted to be all the time. I had my choice between two schools of Art. One was Academic and prosperous and insisted that its students first spend a long apprenticeship drawing from antique casts, and following that, another prolonged time making anatomical drawings in the Life Class. I doubt if I would have lasted in that school any longer than I had in other schools.
The other art school, the one of my choice (and I thank my Guardian Angel for guiding me in that choice), was in a rather ramshackle building, overcrowded with busy and earnest people, where there was a good deal of shouting about Life being more important than Art. It was a vigorous and lusty place and went in for boxing and baseball as well as Art. It once raided the premises of its larger academic rival and challenged them to either a baseball game or a fight, and created a disgraceful brawl there.
It was considered radical because it assumed that the proper way to learn to draw pictures is to draw pictures. I was amazed to discover that any such common sense existed anywhere in the world, and I was happy, and for the first time in my life applied myself to school studies.
Here I was encouraged to experiment and to find things out for myself, and so I was allowed to find out some things I already knew. Among them was the fact that if I wanted to draw a face I had to know what a face felt like. And so when I was learning to draw a face I always tried to think the thoughts of the person I was trying to draw and then to discover what those thoughts were doing to my face. If my model was laughing I laughed too. Then I tried to find out what muscles I was using and what nerves were aroused by those muscles. It seemed to me that the nerves were more essential to my purpose than the muscles, but I never took the trouble to learn the names of either the muscles or the nerves. When I tried to draw an ear I snapped, with my finger my own ear until it tingled, hoping that thereby I might be able to draw what an car felt like. When I tried to draw an elbow I punched my own elbow until my funny bone hurt.
But I was faced with eternal enigmas. What makes an eye look? Or a mouth betray character? An illustrator's business is to make black marks on white paper, and what marks can he make that will show that an eye is looking, or that a mouth is speaking? And that behind that face a brain is thinking?
I never found the solutions to these problems, but in searching, I found some things that I fancied might help. To mention the elbow again, -it is an important place on which you can lean some of your weight at the dinner table. You can poke a friend in the ribs with it. And the greatest ambition and major occupation of some people is merely to bend the elbow. At all events if you wear the same coat long enough it will become necessary to fortify the cloth at the elbow with a patch.
The most important thing to know about the anatomy of the leg is that there is a place in about the middle that bends. It is called "the knee" and is useful as a place from which to say one's prayers, shoot craps, scrub floors and search for collar buttons under beds. It is a veritable breeding ground of patches. Another important part of one's anatomy is that area that comes in contact with a chair when one sits down, and it too has its particular patches.
The soles of one's shoes and the seat of his pants belong to an identical generic anatomical category;-that is, if neither of them is used as nature intends, and if either of them fails to maintain a proper contact and pressure with the ground or a chair, respectively, people would be seen floating around in space, and would therefore look more like angels than human beings. You may have noticed that angels, who are completely lacking in weight, never have patches. Unfortunately, although the soles of shoes do wear out, the patches on them seldom show, so an illustrator has to invent some means other than patches to call attention to the importance of that place.
Accidental patches such as are caused by moths and wicker furniture are less significant and of an inferior order and are scarcely worthy of an illustrator's serious consideration.
And so it is apparent that the size and number and placement of a man's patches reveal his spiritual nature and go to the very roots of his character. And that is why I became an ardent admirer and devotee of patches.
In art school days there was much talk about "character," but I feel there was a small amount of misapprehension mixed up with its interpretation. I could not see then and I can't now why a man with a lot of whiskers has any more character than one who is clean-shaven. Nevertheless I would prefer to draw the former. And I would prefer to draw him after he has lived long enough for Experience to have etched lines in his face,-the more the better. Because the more lines and markings he has in his face the more chance I have of finding ones that I can match with lines on my paper to help create the illusion that the face I am drawing has bones under the skin, that the eyes are seeing things, that the mouth is speaking, and that the man has a soul.
I like pretty girls and I like to look at them but I don't prefer to draw them. They object to having lines in their faces.
I prefer to draw my man in an old suit of clothes because not only do his patches allow me to make almost any number and variety of lines I choose at the most important places, but all the rest of his suit has become a very part of him. On the other hand a new suit of clothes demonstrates only the tailor's art, and the creases that are in it, and the wrinkles that are not, are designed specifically to make the man look like something he is not. Whoever invented the ridiculous assertion that clothes make the man?
So now, perhaps, you will understand why Mopey Dick and the Duke, who had grown up paying small attention to the so-called niceties of life, became my favorite models, patches, whiskers and all.
In the art school I attended there was an idea prevalent that although Life was more important than Art, it should nevertheless be depicted with oil paint. This may be true but it took me a great many years to discover that the favors of the beautiful but fickle goddess who rules that magic realm were not for me.
During those years I neglected Mopey Dick and the Duke and tried, for my models, to substitute trees and clouds and earth and water and boats for them. That was a mistake. It could not be done. But nevertheless I lived in a manner of which they would have approved, and I gained a knowledge, by first-hand experience of how they have always been able to survive with almost no visible means of monetary support. Indeed, at that time I offered an art dealer who had encouraged me to practice High Art, and who had even given me a one-man show in his New York gallery, all the paintings I could produce if in return he would guarantee me twenty dollars a month. He refused the offer, but if he had accepted I would have considered myself affluent. I would not have changed my manner of living one iota except that I would have been able to worry a little less and to indulge myself a little more in paint and canvas and ice cream. And I would have saved some of that money to boot.
When, after those errant years, my Guardian Angel, still keeping watch over me, led me back to my first true love I found myself, to my everlasting amazement, in a job that paid me money for doing exactly what I wanted most to do. I began to report in pictures and words, for a newspaper, the life around me in a great city. That was a vast and rich and diversified life, and I had an ambition to report as many of the different aspects of it as possible. But most often I found myself going back to those places I liked best, -the teeming East Side, the crowded beaches, the public parks. In such places one has the opportunity of seeing and hearing in the open, free to the public view, so many things that are suppressed and hidden in more conventional areas. Also, like the man in the old suit of clothes, those places and the people who inhabit them, are of a piece and belong one to the other, whereas no one strolling up Fifth Avenue ever really belongs there. And who among others should I have run into but my old friends Mopey Dick and the Duke!
After I had drawn a certain number of pictures of my favorite haunts for the newspapers I heard a voice -and I have always thought it might have been that of my Aunt Annie -saying "In that wonderful city in which you live, don't you ever see anything but tramps and bums and sordidness?" And I knew what she meant and I knew that in some respects she was right. So I said, "All right then, I will draw the same two tramps over and over again. Then it won't look as if I think the city is full of nothing but tramps, but please don't call them bums, and please don't call it sordidness."
And that is how, a quarter of a century ago, Mopey Dick and the Duke stepped into public view.
Mopey Dick and the Duke! Begotten in a trash barrel, born in a make-shift studio, growing up in the Ash Can School of Art, and discarded along with the rest of the newspaper in the waste basket! I am not sure that they desire anything they do not already possess, but at last here, between the covers of a book, they have a chance of a more permanent abode, even if it is impossible for them to have a happier one.
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts 1952