By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 31, 2005 at 5:22 AM

{image1}Sometimes the mysterious life of an artist can make us enjoy his work even more. That's definitely true of late Chicago artist Henry Darger. But what draws us to Darger, in addition to the quality of his output, is the sheer quantity of it. Oh yes, and the fact that nobody had any idea that Darger was actually doing anything productive in his one-room Lincoln Park apartment.

Filmmaker Jessica Wu digs into the life of Darger in her documentary, "In the Realms of the Unreal," narrated by Dakota Fanning ("I Am Sam") and with the voice of Larry Pine ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Ice Storm").

Born in Chicago in 1892, Henry Darger had a rough early life. His mother died when he was still young and his father entered a poor house not long after, which led to Darger's being sent to an orphanage, from which he ran away at age 17.

At the same time he began writing his novel, "Realms of the Unreal," which ballooned to a whopping 15,000 pages by the time he died in 1973. For years, the reclusive Darger worked as a janitor by day and wrote his novel and created expansive and detailed paintings on butcher paper. He had but one friend in his lifetime and he lived an extremely solitary life, having only some glancing contact with his neighbors. Those neighbors assumed Darger was little more than a lonely old man who talked to himself and kept to himself.

Luckily, Darger's landlord was artist Nathan Lerner. When Darger went into a home shortly before his death, Lerner entered the apartment and discovered a body of work that most authors and artists can only dream of.

Wu takes us behind the always-closed door of Darger's apartment to explore his life and his mind. But, best of all, she does a brilliant job of connecting the dots between Darger's own troubled and solitary life with the brilliant output of his vivid imagination and artistic sense.

Interviews with Darger's neighbors and footage from his apartment mingle with the only three surviving photos of the artist himself, photos of the various places he lived and worked and with period films about Chicago itself.

But, wisely, Wu gives pride of place to Darger's accomplished, if often-childlike art, often cobbled together from images he clipped, traced or copied from comics, newspapers and magazines.

"In the Realms of the Unreal" is a loving snapshot of a brilliant mind undetected by a world that is quick to assess people and assign judgments. Everyone that knew or met Darger deemed him a troubled, lonely old man. Little did they know he was an imaginative, talented, driven artist.

"In the Realms of the Unreal" opens Friday, April 1 at Landmark's Oriental Theatre.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.