Known to her classmates at Georgia State College for Women as "the cartoon girl," Flannery O'Connor provided satirical illustrations GSCW's student newspaper, The Colonnade, and other school publications while earning a social sciences degree and planning a career in journalism. Executed in the high-contrast technique of linoleum cut from the fall of 1942 until her graduation in 1945, her cartoons skewering the denizens of the Milledgeville campus—roughly drawn but formally dynamic, and often accompanied by punchy, dialogue-driven captions—are the subject of a revelatory new book by O'Connor scholar Kelly Gerald.
In her essay, "The Habit of Art," Gerald suggests how the cartoons anticipate some of the themes, motifs and techniques in O'Connor's celebrated fiction, a form she took up in earnest upon enrollment in the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1946. But Gerald treats the earlier art work on its own terms as popular graphic art and accounts for its enthusiastic reception in the context of its engagement with wartime campus life, local personalities and the comic traditions of the day.
On a deeper level, the cartoons reveal O'Connor as profoundly concerned with the emotionally fraught relationships between individuals and the institutions that both guide and constrict them. In a 1943 panel, two civilian students, faddishly costumed in billowing white pinafores over loud print dresses, confront a pair of trimly uniformed schoolmates from the Women's Naval Reserve. Hands on her hips, one of them huffs, "I think it's perfectly idiotic of the Navy not to let you WAVES dress sensibly like us college girls."
O'Connor's cartoons are in synch with familiar comic types widely imitated at midcentury, from mismatched-buddy acts like Laurel and Hardy to the socially inept, misanthropic persona of W. C. Fields. In such vestiges of vaudeville, Gerald notes, the players are "not adults but children playing at being adults," a description that applies as well to a great many characters from O'Connor's novels and stories.
In his graceful introduction, "Working Backward," illustrator and printmaker Barry Moser points out that O'Connor's visual grasp of the human form, while technically unpolished, was convincingly expressed in her feel for gesture and pose.
In support, Gerald argues that O'Connor's approach likely owes much to James Thurber's spare, wry drawings, in which body language is paramount and a whiff of surrealism can be detected, and to John Held, Jr.'s gangly, antic youths, Joe College and Betty Coed. Both artists were ubiquitous in print at the time. But the young O'Connor brought her own satirical wit into the mix, as well as her love of reversal. Two students lounge on a short flight of steps in a 1944 panel-one visibly irritated, hunched; the other lolling, legs akimbo. The blasé one declares, "This place will never amount to anything until they get a Student Committee on Faculty Relations."
While her cartoons only hint at the fully drawn grotesques of O'Connor's mature fiction, they foreshadow her vividly imagistic prose and close observation of her characters' quirks and foibles-and, in their own right, they are delightful.