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Abner Dean drew cartoons for the New Yorker in the 1940s, and also did illustrations for advertising. But it’s his eight published books that merit attention. What Am I Doing Here? re- published in 2016, by New York Review, is a collection of cartoons. Though, to call it that is something of a misnomer. His style has elements of Peter Arno (who himself is the subject of a recent biography), but Arno’s cartoons were humorous and light, whereas Dean’s are dark and serious. What Am I Doing Here? is a strange, existential and philosophical look at death, war, class, and the meaning of life. And it’s not supposed to be funny!
Dean uses the panel cartoon format to examine these and other very somber themes. His odd characters wander around surreal landscapes naked, yet have the anatomy of Barbie and Ken dolls. This book is definitely not for kids. But who is it for? Anyone who likes their social commentary served up with a hearty helping of Kafkaesque, Orwellian flavor, with a side order of Salvator Dali and Hieronymous Bosch, in a post-apocalyptic world. To say that Dean’s work was ahead of his time would be an understatement. But is the world ready for him now? I hope so, as his art and writing is quite amazing. He belongs right up there with Charles Addams (he actually makes Addams look tame), James Thurber, Saul Steinberg, George Price, Mary Petty and all the other greats of the panel cartoon. What Am I Doing Here? is available on Amazon and sells for $19.00.