Friday, August 18, 2006
I LOVES POSSUMS TOO
Why would any artist choose to work in the medium of the comic strip? The pictures are squeezed into tiny boxes where they compete for space with word balloons. The quality of reproduction is usually awful. And for writers, the medium has even less to offer. There is never enough space for words, and the flow of the narrative is chopped into short installments.
For many, these inherent drawbacks prevent comics from ever being a platform for truly excellent art.
But for at least one eccentric group, comics seem to be the best possible medium. Some artists with a strong personality and a talent for both words and images have found that comics allow them the freedom to combine all their strengths and realize their full artistic potential. These include George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie). These creators could not have achieved the same heights by drawing and writing as two separate disciplines.
Among the greatest to use the special potential of the medium was Walt Kelly in his comic strip, Pogo.
Kelly starts out as an excellent artist. Note in the picture above how effortlessly he employs his knowledge of anatomy and his expressive line to serve the action in this panel: the raised shoulder, lowered head, splayed fingers and recoiling stance of the alligator are all conveyed with the kind of brush work that has not been seen in comic strips for many decades.
Similarly, in the following picture Kelly quietly understands that feet curve in toward each other:
But Kelly was also an excellent writer. Here he combines those drawing skills with his typically clever words:
Kelly could treat words like pictures and pictures like words.
The medium allowed him the freedom to play games and create effects that could never be found in an exclusively literary or visual art form.
Kelly's accomplishment was not just the sum of his drawing and writing. He invested his own distinctive personality and language to create a work that was uniquely his own.
I doubt he could have achieved such greatness in any other medium.
The medium does not suit everyone. Plenty of comic strip artists such as Frank Frazetta or Noel Sickles could not reach their full potential until they were set free from the straightjacket of the comics medium. And there are good writers such as John Updike who gave up drawing comics because they seemed to do better focusing on words alone.
It is easy to get the mixture wrong. Today we seem to have a lot of clever writers such as Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware who cannot draw well, and as a result the quality of the combined work suffers.
Those who were destined to be either an artist or a writer can do good work in comics, but they can never seem to take full advantage of the medium. But for the odd little band of eccentrics such as Kelly, Herriman, Gould and Gray there is no higher art form.