:: Article

Girls on the Run

By Susan Tomaselli.

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Henry Darger, Klaus Biesenbach, Prestel 2009

Who will conquer foreign worlds searching for the stolen girls?
Princesses you’ll never fear the patron saint of girls is here!
Who will draw the cavalry in and risk his very own precious skin
To make our Angelinia a free and beautiful land again?
- Natalie Merchant, The Ballad of Henry Darger

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Unassuming Chicagoan janitor Henry Darger squirreled ephemera away for forty years: newspapers, magazines, comic books, phone directories, the complete run of Nancy strips. It was uncovered – alongside balls of twine, hundreds of pairs of beat out shoes, dozens of broken eyeglasses, crucifixes and dolls – by his landlord, New Bauhaus photographer Nathan Lerner, when Darger died in 1972. The greatest discovery, The Adventures of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal or the Glandelinian War Storm or the Glandico-Abiennian Wars, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, was an epic 15,000-page hand-bound novel, written in longhand and over twenty years in the making.

It’s the ultimate cut-up: a watercolour and collage tableaux incorporating hand-drawings, photographically enlarged and traced figures and landscape elements, mostly repurposed from comics, children’s adventure serials, advertisements and colouring books. “Illuminating dense, often meandering prose, the drawings cover the front and back of hundreds of long, pieced-together paper pages, usually two feet in height and some extending to twelve feet in length,” writes Klaus Biesenbach.

The Adventures of the Vivian Girls, is the long-winded story of an imaginary planet (with our earth as its moon) magically transversable by sea cruise, where all the countries are Catholic. This world is torn apart when Glandelinia turns against the faith and enslaves, tortures and murders its children. The seven Vivian girls, blonde-haired warrior saints, lend their support to the child slave rebellion and, with the help of hero Jack Evans, eventually save them.

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It’s far-flung stuff, borrowing heavily from L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and though a rip-roaring yarn, it is not, by no stretch of the imagination, a well-crafted novel.

Sui generis Henry Darger was a bit of an enigma. Though he looms large in The Adventures of the Vivian Girls as a strangely familiar animating force, what is known about him is found through his other writing: the six weather journals he kept, Weather Report of Cold and Warm, Also Summer Heats and Cool Spells, Storms and Fair or Cloudy Days, Contrary to What the Weatherman Says, And Also True Too, firsthand almost-daily observations from 1957 to 1967; The History of My Life, a selective autobiography that documents his memories for some 200 pages before launching into a story about a tornado he witnesses when he was 21 that runs to 5,000 more; his diary of his day-to-day activities, which consisted mostly of his daily church attendance and complaints about his declining health. Together, they tell us he was obsessed with Catholicism, fires, tortured children, mythical demons and the weather, convinced that it was God’s domain.

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Darger may well be one of the most celebrated self-taught artists of our time. The saga of the Vivian Girls not only continues to hold interest, but their – and Darger’s – influence can be seen most obviously in the work of the Chapman Brothers, Marcel Dzama and Yoshitomo Nara; Jeff Koons, Matthew Barney and Grayson Perry (“I have spent a life long playing out his world and tried to emulate his technique”) share a kinship; his reach extends into music (Natalie Merchant, Sufjan Stevens), poetry (John Ashbury’s Girls on the Run) and he has a walk-on part in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Yet, as Klaus Bisenbach notes, though Dargeresque images galvanise how we perceive our times, his magnum opus is strangely reminiscent of a long-lost era in America.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli is a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine and lives in Dublin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 29th, 2010.