Friday, October 21, 2016


In Richard Thompson's comic strip, Cul de sac, a guinea pig escapes from a school classroom.  Once outside, the pig says:

What does he mean by that?

The famous poet Stephen Crane pointed out that we'd better be careful about wishing for freedom:
If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant --
What then?
Thompson never wrote poetry about existential dread but he was able to make the same point using humor, children and talking animals.   Crane's words wouldn't fit in a tiny word balloon, but Thompson effectively grabs our attention by juxtaposing the simple words "I'm free!" with "Help!"

Last week we discussed whether comics are a suitable medium for profound content.  As a general matter, I'd say no.  Comics are short, simple, cheap, badly reproduced and aimed at a low readership.  Most are poorly drawn.   It's difficult to make great art using a medium that chafes and strains against ambitious content.

But every once in a great while, an artist comes along who vindicates the medium by achieving greatness within its confines.  Gifted artists such as Herriman, Schulz, Watterson or Thompson, have the rare ability to simplify larger human truths into brief adventures squeezed to fit in small boxes.

Thompson's brief strip about the guinea pig makes Stephen Crane's point, but in a lighter more elegant way than Crane.  As a bonus, he makes other funny observations about human nature along the way:  

I love the evanescent loyalty of the children:

Like Herriman, Thompson drew with "secret grace and obvious clumsiness."
As St. Augustine said (and as Thompson also shows us) "the virtue of children lies not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs."

When Thompson's children grow up, they'll develop the guile to conceal their true natures.  But cartoons don't allow room to gradually strip away artifice, so great cartoonists use children to distill grown up truths to their essence.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


When R. Crumb illustrated Bible stories in comic book form, some critics complained, "the power of the text seems diminished, not enhanced or illuminated, by these images." If the pictures don't enhance the text, what's the point?

Crumb himself said, "I decided just to do a straight illustration job." For example, he portrayed God as the traditional old white guy in a toga with a long beard.  He even gives us the perfunctory starburst to symbolize the creation of heaven and earth.

I would've enjoyed seeing Crumb's demented imagination applied in earnest.  Instead, he handled the Bible "just like [the Classics Illustrated comic books from the '50s]. You know, it's no big deal." 

You might wonder why the world needs another comic book version of the Bible, a book which raises the world's most challenging and complex subjects.  After all, there are plenty of versions out there already for lazy students seeking a study guide the night before exams. Do any of these illustrations contribute anything original on the subjects of creation, mortality, sex, destiny, spirituality, love, passion, miracles, etc.?  From the Classic Comics version to the Kubert version to The Graphic Canon treatment to The Action Bible, the graphic novel format seems to dumb down, rather than enhance, the text.

As Mario Naves wrote, "An artist who trades in trivialities should know well enough not to mess with themes that are beyond the scope of his talent."

Which brings me to the new book, Garden of the Flesh, biblical stories by Gilbert Hernandez. [CAUTION: EVEN WITH MY REDACTIONS THE FOLLOWING IMAGES ARE NSFW.] 

According to the cover, "Beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing through the story of Noah's ark," this book offers "biblical tales of Original Sin."  Inside is perhaps the most barren treatment of the Bible or of sin I've ever seen.


What in the world was the artist thinking?  These awful drawings-- flat, bland and unimaginative--together with the sparse, inane dialogue suck the IQ points right out of your head.

(N.B.: I promise these are not unfair excerpts.  The entire book limps on like this, page after page.)

If these drawings had been scratched on a men's room wall I'd say, "go for it!"  I agree with the wise man who said, "Bad drawing, even bad bad drawing, almost always has character.... the vision has a weird purity you kind of have to admire, no matter what."  But bad drawing loses some of that "weird purity" and no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt as it become more pretentious.

Today we're all good post-modernists; we evaluate pictures based on the artist's success at achieving his or her individual ambitions.   But that doesn't mean we have no standards whatsoever.  A book that is essentially a Tijuana Bible at heart gets evaluated differently when it takes on the ambitions of a deluxe embossed book which presumes to address Biblical stories of original sin.  It's hard not to feel insulted by this book.

Authentic Tijuana Bibles may not get reviewed in prestigious journals but they are superior works of art, more successful at achieving their artistic ambitions. 

Many of the artists who drew Tijuana Bibles were technically unskilled but their drawings were more genuine and human and lusty than the thin, pleasureless drawings in Garden of the Flesh.  

Not only that, but their plots were more intelligent.

John Dillinger stops to aid two pretty girls who are having car trouble.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Can drawings still inflame passions today?

Anyone who doubts it should've attended the annual convention of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists last week in Durham, North Carolina.  Editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes (of the Washington Post) described how she was swamped with outraged phone calls, emails and tweets  after drawing a negative cartoon about Ted Cruz.


Some of the comments she received were later quoted in The Columbia Journalism Review:
“You filthy kunt…a baseball bat to your head is now due."
“Bitch, your days are numbered.”
“do the world a favor, go hang yourself”
“I hope you get raped to death”
It's a good thing Cruz's followers are so religious; otherwise those comments might've turned nasty.

Cruz supporters helpfully posted Telnaes' photo online so she'd be easier to identify.  In the face of this lunatic rage, the Washington Post chickened out and removed the cartoon from its web site, thus vindicating angry jerks everywhere.

Cartoonist Joel Pett (of the Lexington Herald Leader) told a similar story.   He entertained the AAEC audience by playing his voice mailbox filled with enraged calls about Pett's cartoon criticizing Kentucky governor Matt Bevin: 

The attack on Pett was boosted by right wing social media and went viral.  At one point Pett did a little dance onstage to the soundtrack of crazed callers threatening him with harm.

I checked with conservative cartoonist Scott Stantis (The Chicago Tribune) to see if he received similar hate mail from the left.  He described how a reader called his home to say that he hoped Stantis's children would be killed.  There are morons on both sides of the political spectrum, many of whom have trouble reading complex words but who understand (and resent) the power of pictures.

Once upon a time, editorial cartoons were thought to make a difference by educating the public and showing them perspectives that might change their minds or soften their positions.  Cartoonist Thomas Nast was credited with helping to bring down the corrupt Tweed regime that controlled New York in the 1860s and 70s.  His graphic symbols resonated with the public (he created popular icons, such as the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey) so much that he influenced presidential elections.  Tweed is reported to have cursed, "Stop them damn pictures! I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read, but they can see the pictures."

Judging from this year's AAEC convention, fewer readers today are interested in being educated and more are interested in reinforcing their pre-existing biases.  To achieve this, many seem intent on silencing opposing views.  Ironically, these are the people who need education the most.  People who once were embarrassed by their own ignorance seem willing today to take aggressive steps to preserve it.

In such a climate, my hat is off to today's editorial cartoonists.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Why did Maxfield Parrish spend so much time painting tiny crevasses in rocks in the backgrounds of his paintings?


Parrish was a fabulously successful illustrator.  He earned over $100,000 per year in an era when houses cost only $2,000.  His time was so valuable, you'd think he would've found a shortcut for the menial labor of painting tiny crevasses in dumb rocks. 

To get the proper "feel" for rocks, Parrish used to bring actual rocks into his studio, paint them a flat color and 
light them to accentuate their shadows.

The following detail from an original Parrish painting, photographed from 3 inches away, shows you how tedious it must have been for Parrish to paint all those damn crevasses:

Obviously Parrish decided that these details made an important contribution to his paintings, and that there was no simpler, faster way to achieve the effect he wanted.
Bernie Fuchs was another great illustrator whose time was very much in demand.  He was an economical painter who abhorred unnecessary detail.  Yet, he too seemed to believe that rocks in the background were worthy of his sustained attention.

There's nothing fake about these rocks; they required thousands of deliberately placed brush strokes.  If Fuchs tried to get away with random marks, we would've seen the difference.

This is not an issue of mere realism.  Fuchs wove more design into the details than Parrish did, but that was Fuchs's nature.

It's not necessary to paint rocks in great detail to be persuasive.   Illustrator Harold von Schmidt simplified desert rocks using black poster paint and a wide, flat brush:


Von Schmidt grew up spending a lot of time staring at rocks in the desert.


Like Parrish and Fuchs, Von Schmidt respected background rocks and put substantial thought into getting them right. As a result, they gave themselves to him in these wonderful drawings.

On the other hand,  when even talented painters disrespect rocks and attempt to fake it, as Frank Frazetta did in these two pictures, the rocks end up looking phony:


Frazetta put in the manual labor to draw tiny cracks in this wall but you can tell he wasn't looking at rocks when he did

Just like the rest of mother nature, rocks don't like being taken for granted.

Saturday, September 17, 2016


James Gurney is one of the most visually insatiable artists I've met. He is famously productive-- he draws and paints all the damn time.  If he gets trapped in a conversation too long, or if he has to wait in line to get his car inspected, his fingers get itchy and he feels compelled to haul out his portable watercolors.  When he looks you in the eye, you can't help but feel that part of him is measuring you from an artist's perspective.

Which is why I was particularly interested in Gurney's perspective on Adolph Menzel, the great German draftsman who felt similarly compelled to record everything he saw, everywhere he went.  Gurney's excellent new book on Menzel fills a great void by retrieving and publishing  drawings that have been hidden away for decades in an East German museum.

Menzel's obsession with recording worldly things enabled him to see the drama we might otherwise miss in a chest full of old documents:

Or to show us his respect for the symmetry and structure of a steel mill:

Menzel didn't put down his pencil when an acquaintance sat on the toilet:

Or even when opening caskets to help identify bodies:

Gurney's book contains a fascinating story about Menzel's 1873 expedition into a dark crypt beneath a garrison church to open old military coffins and identify the remains of the officers there. He drew these figures by lantern light.

But the thing that impressed me most about these drawings by Menzel is that the process didn't become mechanical for him.  He was not drawing out of mere habit.  After thousands and thousands of drawings, he still responded to the visual power of the world around him:

Gurney's large, thoughtful selection of images shows the full range of Menzel's drawing, and some I liked more than others, but they all make clear that Menzel was drawing for the right reasons.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


This extraordinary drawing by John Cuneo has already been selected for inclusion in both of the upcoming annual collections of illustration art: The Society of Illustrators' Annual of American Illustration and the American Illustration Annual.  So why bother reproducing it here?

Because the Annuals will reproduce it at a size that makes it look like an ant colony and you'll miss the entire point.   Here are some details worthy of your attention that you won't see any other way:

Cuneo is the only contemporary illustrator I can think of who draws animals on a par with the great A.B. Frost or Heinrich Kley.

This dog hanging from the ceiling shows Cuneo's strong sense of design:

I've been critical on this blog of the type of loose drawing that results from shortcuts or a careless attitude.  On the other hand, I think Cuneo is an excellent example of loose drawing with genuine strength and substance behind it.  You can really tell when an artist has paid his or her dues.

There are dozens of faces on this drawing, and some of them are freaky scary:



As with many of Cuneo's drawings, this one is rich with oblique references and dark symbolism.

I think this is a major work, but you'd never guess it from the tiny reproduction in the Annuals.  That's why I'm performing a public service by sharing some details here. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


At Comic-Con this year, I was struck by the number of prominent cartoonists who lectured on the virtues of simplicity.

Jim Davis, who presides over the Garfield empire, said that he tries to limit his strips to 25 words or less, and to get to the punchline in fewer than ten seconds.   Davis said that if readers spend longer than ten seconds, they might guess the punchline ahead of him.

Note that there are no backgrounds or details to distract the reader.  Davis also said that by using three nearly identical drawings, he spares readers the effort of thinking about transitions or shifting perspectives. 

Garfield was custom made for a low effort, short-attention-span audience, which means it is wildly successful.  In his talk, Davis impressed me as extremely bright and sophisticated.  His marketing strategy seemed similar to the strategy of cigarette companies that genetically modify tobacco plants to make nicotine more addictive.

Kate Beaton, creator of the popular webcomic Hark, A Vagrant! was another advocate for simplicity.

Like Davis, Beaton tries to minimize the number of words (which is good because she has little enthusiasm for punctuation, lettering, and sometimes spelling).  When it comes to drawing,  Beaton said, "I used to be self-conscious about my art.  The more I worked and tried to make it look finished, the worse it looked." Then she heard a story that made her realize she didn't need to work so hard.  According to the legend, illustrator Quentin Blake once had to rush an assignment and turned in quick, unfinished sketches which his art director liked even better than Blake's finished work.    This helped Beaton accept that her simple, casual sketches could be enough.

Beaton writes that her drawing process is "simplistic."  I agree with her, but I suspect she meant to say "simple."  ("Simplistic" means superficial, facile or oversimple. )  I think Beaton's real strengths are verbal-- her distinctive voice about historical characters and her thoughtful (and occasionally heartbreaking) stories about her home town. One might wonder why she chose an essentially visual medium to convey her ideas.

I love loose, naive drawing.  Some of the greatest drawings are the ones that have attained child-like simplicity.  Simplification is a wonderful discipline because it forces an artist to prioritize-- to continually sacrifice the lesser in favor of the greater until only the greatest is left.  But I fear that today's comics are flooded with mediocre drawing because the fashion is to view visual quality as expendable, a "lesser priority" which can be painlessly sacrificed in favor of the text or concept. 

In truth, this sacrifice hasn't hindered the success of Davis, Beaton or other mega successful cartoonists.  The New Yorker, with its literary emphasis, has become a cheerleader for these priorities.  Much of today's audience is incapable of distinguishing loose drawing from sloppy, careless drawing.  Like Beaton, they haven't mastered the difference between "simple" and "simplistic."

This trend isn't a tragedy on the level of climate change. However, it does suggest  that most art in today's strips falls short of the distinctive drawing that once made comics a great visual art form. Perhaps comics are evolving into a primarily literary medium with drawings serving a subordinate role as a mere lubricant for the words.