« You’ve got to go pretty far back in the woods for good backwoods humor. »
Contemplating Norman Pettingill‘s life brings to mind Henry David Thoreau in his secluded cabin – « I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me. » Most of us living in high density urban centers have bittersweet moments of pining for the ‘natural’ lifestyle of the woods, perhaps fishing and hunting for modest yet satisfying sustenance, quietly sitting on the porch in the evenings and thinking philosophical thoughts with the backdrop of nocturnal animal sounds.
Judging from Pettingill’s cheeky illustrations of just such a natural life, quietude doesn’t actually come into much – instead, he presents us with a sort of vaudeville cast of bears bent on mayhem, drunk old-timers and pipe-smokin’ grannies, women emphatically pursued by wild fauna harbouring thoughts a holy man would blush at, crazy surgeons and gung-ho sturgeons (oh, there was no specific indication of the many fish nibbling on tender parts being sturgeons, but Wisconsin boasts two species).
Norman Pettingill (1896-1991) was born and raised in Wisconsin to be a hunter, fisher and trapper, just like all men around him, and although he took well to these activities (it seems he was a very good hunter/fisher/gatherer), his favoured interests lay elsewhere. I’m not sure how inviting this, err, virile environment would be to a boy who delights in drawing caricatures instead of chopping wood or shooting rabbits, but at any rate nobody seems to have dissuaded young Pettingill from his artistic pursuits.
His drawings with pen and ink can easily be divided into categories. The first consists of his quiet and beautifully detailed forest scenes, with varied animals poised as if about to dash away.
Then there are his bawdy, sometimes grotesque, and frequently unhinged caricatures of his fellow men (and women) and the stuff they get up to. To be fair, there is something sweet in his mockery – only an insider could observe the vernacular of language and behaviour with such bite and yet affection. I especially favour group scenes with more riotous action and ribald skirmishes than one could shake a hunter’s gun at.
Other times, group shots give way to a more focused approach, whether it’s a woman approached by a bear who seems to be bent on inter-species action, or an inept hunter running at full speed from what was supposed to be his prey.
These pictures have been taken from Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist (Fantagraphics, 2010). The images themselves were drawn between 1947 and 1959.