The Weird, Wacky, and Wonderful Posters of W. W. Denslow, Part 1

Before he became famous as the illustrator of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz in 1900, W. W. Denslow was already a successful commercial artist, working primarily in newspaper art, book covers, and posters. Just yesterday, I was lucky enough to have found an online treasure trove of his posters as I was looking for material for my social media posts.

I have always been very fond of Denslow's unique style, which, like most of us, I discovered by reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Yet, in my case, this eventually became something of an obsession, and, when I was a senior in high school, I would spend many a laborious hour painstakingly trying to copy his line work. (It was too precise for me to have much success, as my hand wasn't as steady as I would have liked.)

But I still look back at his work with a sense of awe, mostly because of his unique way of seeing the world. In a previous blog entry, I alluded to some of his quirks, which include using symmetry for comic effect, (or as decoration, or both,) his whimsical subject matter, etc. And these posters provide a rare glimpse into the creative genius that would later lend itself to the immortal likenesses of Dorothy, The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the rest of them. (A likeness which the 1939 MGM film in some ways cemented into the American consciousness without having originally created them.)

1.) The Merchant Prince of Cornville (1896): Stylistically, this poster is quite different from what Denslow is typically known for. For one thing, he drew the faces in halftones with a very sincere bent towards realism, all but eschewing the cartoonish style that is so typical of his work. Yet, the fact that he handles this so well easily gives him away as being much more versatile than his otherwise rigid style would suggest. (I suspect that his willingness to adapt could be because of the serious-minded, almost Shakespearean nature of the book. Cartoons would definitely not be very appropriate here.) Yet, upon closer examination, we can see some of his usual stylistic patterns show through. For example, his solid, outlined treatment of hair; his confident line work; and his bold, simplistic facial features can all be seen in the masked man in the foreground.

2.) Best Illustrated Cartoon Paper; Uncle Sam (circa. 1893): What's most interesting about this piece is that it's in direct opposition to Denslow's usual habit of drawing proportionately larger heads, as in this case he has clearly done the reverse. Maybe because Uncle Sam is supposed to be a tall, stately figure? At any rate, he is clearly not constrained by realism or serious-mindedness, as his best-known style is a bit more visible here. I might even add that the spontaneous line work makes it look like he had a lot of fun doing this poster.

3.) The Philistine; Books to Burn (1898): This poster was created for Elbert Hubbard's "The Philistine; a Periodical of Protest" which had a surprisingly successful twenty year run between 1895 and 1915. Denslow, as it turns out, was a pretty prolific contributor to this periodical, perhaps his best known contribution being his "What's the Use?" cartoon depicting a skull encircled by laurel leaves. A simple Google image search for Denslow's illustrations in the Philistine turn up a modest number of his contributions, which, along with this poster, suggest a very deep involvement in that project.

As far as style, his typical use of line, caricature, color, and expression is in full view here, and this being just two years before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it might be okay to assume that he was still trying to find himself when he created his previous posters.

4.) The Marbeau Cousins (circa. 1898): This poster, promoting obscure Georgian author Harry Stillwell Edwards' 1898 novel The Marbeau Cousins, is also stylistically in line with what Denslow is typically known for. What I personally find interesting is that his perfectly symmetrical row of crows at the bottom almost seem to foreshadow some of his illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard, particularly the depictions of the Scarecrow in his cornfield.

5.) Armageddon (1898): This is another stylistic departure from the majority of Denslow's work, and given the title and subject matter, this publication is probably another one of those serious-minded works for which he had to adapt his style. Yet the design elements are very much in line with what he's known for. Namely, his use of solid colors and shapes in the background, and his use of hand lettering and decorations. This combination, as well as the one we see in number 1 above, suggest to me that, although he was willing to take whatever work he could get, he wouldn't let it dictate his aesthetic and creative direction any more than it had to.

I found thirteen of these posters, which, because today is a very busy day for me otherwise, I won't be able to post all at once, so we have to part ways for now. I'll be back very soon with a second part to this series, hopefully tomorrow. But in the meantime, please don't hesitate to share your thoughts with me in the comments section, as I always enjoy reading and responding to them.

Have a beautiful day!

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