Sunday, February 25, 2007


I've often made fun of today's fashionable comic artists who can't draw. You'll find them in lofty venues like the New York Times or art museums, worshipped by intellectuals who have persuaded themselves that traditional artistic standards are not relevant to the "new" art forms.

Awful drawing by Gary Panter reprinted by the Smithsonian Institution

Terrible drawing by Frank Stack also reprinted by the Smithsonian Institution
We are told for example that we can't judge the new "sophisticated and literate" brand of comic art without taking into consideration its words, or its politics, or its sadness, or some other redeeming external feature. Artists of the modern graphic novel, we are told, should not be measured by the standards applied to previous generations of artists (standards such as design, composition or linework). Instead, their pictures are to be read "like music notes on paper. They're just marks, unless you understand music, can read them, and then it becomes music... inside your brain."

My own view is that the emperor has no clothes. However, any critic taking such a position had better check in the mirror to make sure his own clothing is zipped up before venturing out in public.

Art is the great untidy thing, and I confess that I too am fond of artists with weak artistic ability just because I like their storytelling, or their style, or their spirit, or-- sometimes-- their weirdness.

One artist I like is Wally Wood, who worked for MAD Magazine and countless other publications.

Wood was no great draftsman. His figures were stiff and often formulaic. He did a lot of sloppy work. He never quite seemed to master perspective or foreshortening. (Note this cool spaceman with his head growing out of his shoulder:)

Despite his flaws, and his abundance of mediocre work, I really enjoy Wood's art. He was a seminal figure in popular culture, someone who made important contributions to the imagery of science fiction and satire. His subversive imagination worked well with Harvey Kurtzman's to challenge the "creeping meatballism" of 1950s and 1960s culture.

Note the beatnik in the background of one of Wood's trademark weird illustrations from MAD:

Another frequently mediocre artist I like is Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit and the founding father of the graphic novel. Eisner's meager drawing ability was barely adequate to convey his talent. He had no great aptitude for design or composition, but he was a creative story teller with a strong visual sense. He wisely turned to a series of ghost artists (including Wally Wood) to help him.

Eisner's art was just competent enough to portray the cinematic angle shots and shadows for which he was justly famous.

Eisner's Spirit was smart, funny and a joy to read.

There are other artists whose style, personality, wit or story line compensate for their artistic weaknesses. Some that come readily to mind are Lynda Barry, Harvey Kurtzman, Scott Adams and Garret Gaston.

Is it fair for me to criticize some current artists (such as Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter and Frank Stack) for their mediocre drawing while forgiving other artists (such as Wood and Eisner) for their own lack of talent? What's the difference between the art I like and the art I don't?

First, I find it is much easier to accept mediocre art when it is unpretentious. Artists such as Wood and Eisner toiled for decades pouring creativity onto cheap pulp paper. They were under appreciated and underpaid. By contrast, their modern counterparts found early fame and are lauded in deluxe coffee table books from the Smithsonian Institution filled with gushing self-congratulatory prose about how the new generation has elevated the medium:
When Raw finally came to an end and Spiegelman collected his pulitzer prize for Maus, few would deny that, in the right hands, the once lowly comic book rivaled film and the novel as a medium for sophisticated and literate narrative expression. On New York's Upper West Side, comics were now "hip" after all.
As far as I'm concerned, unwarranted arrogance strips mediocre art of its charm.

Second, I am not impressed with the "hip" sophistication that supposedly redeems the current art. I am told that the new generation of graphic novelists deals with more mature and adult themes like the bleakness of modern life. To me, this is like saying that Wally Wood's art was more "adult" during the phase when he drew softcore porn for a living. Wood's "mature" subject did not redeem his art. Quite the contrary, Wood's pornography, like Chris Ware's adolescent nihilism, is actually less mature than MAD magazine. Tragedy is a fitting subject for adult art but mewling, bleating, puking and whining do not redeem mediocrity in art, they underscore it.

Wood was a pioneer in an infant medium. He fought battles for artistic freedom and artists rights that his successors never had to fight. Despite his prolific output, he was never compensated as well as his successors have been. He was not unaware of bleakness in life; he had health problems and struggled with the bottle and depression before he killed himself. But Wood was never narcissistic enough to fill graphic novels with his personal demons.

Wood's generation felt obligated to try to get things right artistically, and Wood fell short of the highest standards of draftsmanship. However, he left a great legacy, a generation of wonderful images and stories of children, rocketships, and alien creatures. He had a great influence.  A mediocre artist could do a lot worse.


Anonymous said...

Great thoughts, and great blog. But you forgot one of the all-time great, bad artists: Gary Larson!

David Apatoff said...

Lee, I love Gary Larson's work! He doesn't try to hide anything with his simple, unpretentious line, which is ideally suited for his bizarre messages. Nobody would dare to apply an earthly standard to his work.

Has anyone heard what he is doing now?

leif said...

David; Another terrific, well reasoned essay that provokes the thought (and no doubt the ire of the Chris Ware cheering squad).

You're a brave man.

I too have a tremendous affection for Wally Wood's art -- and his fall from favour and tragic ending still confound me.

Let's not forget that he inspired a generation of underground comix/ kustom kulture artists - not to mention his pioneering of the self-publishing movement. Just think about how all of that has infiltrated the mainstream in just a few decades!

A mighty forest of pop culture has grown up out of the seedlings planted by Wally Wood and a handful of others. I wonder, will today's 'mavericks' ever be able to look back and see that they had a similar impact?

Look around and you'll see Wally Woodisms everywhere... even in my avatar ;-)

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Leif. Glad to hear from another Wood fan. I think your description of his impact is exactly right. And it's great that he influenced your avatar!

Dominic Bugatto said...

A very well thought out and provocative post , tho I think the term 'mediocre' a touch harsh when referring to Wood & Eisner's abilities.

When one has to draw ( sometimes write too ) 10 + pages of comic art , sustaining an elevated level of drawing can be problematic, and if time's pressing , daunting and near impossible.

I guess my point is, that comics as a medium , presents the artist with set of different demands, creatively, artistically by virtue of how they're poduced.

Though some did elevate the medium to heights, that we'll never see again , McCay , Caniff , Sickles, Crane , Starr to name a few.

Enjoying your blog.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Dominic. I understand your point about being too rough on Wood and Eisner. Believe me, I like them both and collect their art.

I think that compared to other comic artists, they both draw well. But I measure them using the same standards I'd apply to all 20th century representational artists-- Charles Dana Gibson, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, etc.

Measured by those standards, some artists-- like Noel Sickles-- still look pretty darn good. Others-- like Wood and Eisner-- seem mediocre by comparison. But as you say, they have other demands, and other endearing attributes, that Eakins etc. did not have.

Anonymous said...

I'd say that nine tenths of comics on the rack are downright bad.

The Sandman series is one those comics that had for the most part really awful art but decent writing.

Anonymous said...

Edward Hopper? How about Charles Scheeler?

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I agree that nine tenths of comics are downright bad. Would you agree with me that nine tenths of the art in the Museum of Modern Art is also downright bad?

Anonymous said...

Would I agree on that? I don't know because I have never been there. The only "famous" galleries I have been to are the Tate, the Louvre, the Pompidou and the Musee D'Orsay.
I personally love abstract art but I also love good comics. At the same time I am a "bad" comics fan because I really can't stand most of what is out there. However, I can handle some bad art if it is done in a certain way, what that way is is hard to quantify. The reason I brought up the Sandman series is that the art in that book goes from good (Mike Dringenberg, Marc Hempel) to "rough" (the Brief Lives series, egads!). I can forgive the bad art because I really enjoy Neil Gaiman's work on that series.
I don't know if I have a favorite bad artist, I certainly have some favorite "cheese" artists. Frazetta is one of those. I guess Kent Williams could be my favorite "bad" artist, I am drawn to his obvious technical skill but can find myself turned off by the subject matter. I tend to like his simpler work, the plain portraits of some his friends that he did in his Selected Work catalogue from a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I really answered your question very well with my previous reply.

I don't really apply the same standard to comics as I do other art. I really don't know how I could compare Caravaggio with John Buscema (as an example only). I think Cages by Dave McKean is quite wonderful but I don't know how to relate it to Goya or Franz Hals or any number of other artists from the past.
Apparently there is just a load of bad "Salon" style paintings that were painted in the past, I suppose that could be a comparison to some of the modern publishing practices of comics today. I would need to spend a lot more time putting my thoughts together on the topic.

BVS said...

I think your off target with will Eisner, Eisner is without a doubt the most pretentious figure in American comics, he makes Frank miller, Todd McFarlane and Stan Lee all look humble. he's the guy who he himself claims to have invented and published the first graphic novel. he says he was the first person to see comics as a true art, while everyone else in comics in the 40's was just there to make a quick buck while they worked on getting their commercial illustrator careers started.
whenever he'd talk about himself he'd drone on about how his comics were about life, and sadness and man's relationship to the world and god, while everyone else's comics were celebrations of vulgarity and violence and man's foulest instincts. this from the guy who created ebony white?
don't get em wrong I love the guy and and I'd say he's a master of American comics,and he was as full of hot air as they come.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I've never made it to the Louvre, but I've made it to the Tate and other museums. The percentage of downright bad art isn't quite as high as it is at the Museum of Modern Art, but they all have clinkers, just like you find at the comic rack.

I agree that it is hard to compare Caravaggio and Buscema, just like it is hard to compare a rose and a daisy. They are both trying to do different things, and they can be good or bad within their own frame of reference. However, I don't give comic art any special excuses or concessions just because it is a lower class of art. If it wants to command my attention and affection, comic art must compete on a level playing field with other representational figure drawing. And it does.

David Apatoff said...

bvs, you are without a doubt the single bravest man who has ever written in to this blog. You should make arrangements with your next of kin for when the Eisner fans catch up with you.

I only heard Eisner talk once,and he was far better behaved than what you describe. Given his age and the idolatrous fans who surrounded him, it's quite possible that he could have said just about anything.

Thanks for an extremely funny and interesting response!

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

I agree that 90% of MoMA is crap--actually I'd put the figure higher. I also agree that bad art is easier to overlook when unpretentious.

But calling Eisner unpretentious? Have you read anything he did after The Spirit?

I sort of like them myself, but any of those city life/family history/man's relationship to god stories from the 70s onward...well, "unpretentious" isn't the first description that springs to my mind.

BTW, of course it's inappropriate to rigidly apply the exact same standards to comics as to "previous generations of [visual] artists", for the same reason it would be inappropriate to judge a film purely in terms of the composition of its shots. Film is about more than individual images, and so are (most) comics. (Most) comics include at least two features which don't appear in (most) other visual art, namely sequence and the juxtaposition of words and image. A comics artist can be great by being a master of those two features, even if her individual images lack the virtues of traditional illustrative art.

That's not to say comics artists can't be judged by traditional standards. Just that they still be great comics artists without being great illustrators.

David Apatoff said...

Jones (and bvs) I like Eisner because of the humor in the Spirit and because of that long, unglamorous stretch when Eisner was a penny-pinching, low overhead employer of ghost talent trying to scratch out drawings for a few bucks. The man illustrated army mechanical maintenance manuals under government contracts to stay alive. Nobody wanted his opinion back then and not many people wanted his art. His "comeback" in the 60s with Harvey comics was a distinct flop.

I recognize that when fandom later turned him into a demigod, it may have gone to his head. And you are absolutely right, I don't know his later work nearly as well.

Anonymous said...

What about Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a book I consider the greatest of graphic novels, yet some would consider the artwork as being poor? Miyazaki certainly shines as a writer.

william ibanez said...

wood and eisner mediocre artists????? are ya blind??????? no one today is as prolific as wood is. how many pencilers out there can ink there own work and not ruin it?

Li-An said...

Very interesting post. But the origine of it looks weird for me. "Bad artist" ? What is it ? I don't know (I suppose I'm a very very bad artist for a lot of people). There is only artist I like and others. And for time to time, some "bad" go to the "good".

Jason said...

Nice post, though like some others I disagree about Wally Wood being bad. Are we talking about 'style' over 'technique' or perhaps a personal preference for the way things look? I have an old copy of Wood's Witzend, and to me the babes and aliens he drew were incredibly well (mis)proportioned! I think Wood's ability far exceed those of Jack Davis, Mort Drucker etc etc. considering they're all 'cartoonists'. As for Eisner, I appreciate his technical ability, regardless of the sometimes clunky perspective. Think about Bob Kane's Batman, Shuster's terrible Superman (in Action Comics 1). Now that's bad art. Would Frank Frazetta be considered a terrible artist when compared to Norman Rockwell? Paul Klee vs Raphael? If Durer drew comics would they look any better? Does the medium dictate the worthiness of the art, the value of technique? Canvas vs comic book?

Anyway, bleating on here like i know something, adios!

David Apatoff said...

Jason, I agree that Wood's work in Witzend was a labor of love-- among his best. But if you look at most of his work following EC--including Total War, Thunder Agents, and most of his work for Marvel and DC, it was pretty feeble. Harvey Kurtzman used to say that Wood's figures were always stiff and that Wood "always, always, always got it wrong." Yet, I love his work (which is, I suppose, the point of this posting).

Lanz said...

Eisner and Wood "mediocre"? Whoa. That's harsh. Probably too harsh.

Now, you wanna talk bad artists, look at your Liefelds and your McFarlanes and your Bagges. Grossly over-rated.

Anonymous said...

It's one man's opinion whether to label Wally Wood "mediocre" or not, and I don't feel like arguing such an opinion,
but I'm afraid I have to respond to 2 of your comments:

1)"He never quite mastered perspective or foreshortening. (Note this cool spaceman with his head growing out of his shoulder"

I don't know if you are a draftsman yourself, but if you take a piece of tracing paper (or take the jpeg into Photoshop and drop a semiopaque white layer onto it), and draw through the helmet structure and follow the form of where the head begins and ends, and then carry it down to where it attaches to the shoulders you would see that your above assessment is inaccurate. The figure is just fine. Wood always drew the figure first and then put things like the helmet on after. The helmet and it's attaching hoses are imagined as something that does not conform to the body form but instead the body moves around in -like a diving helmet.

I never saw significant perspective problems that would make him stand out from the ranks of his contemporaries as lacking. You'd have to give examples, and ones more convincing than the incorrect example above.

2)"Harvey Kurtzman used to say that Wood's figures were always stiff and that Wood "always, always, always got it wrong."
I've read this, and you've taken it out of context. Kurtzman was specifically referring to Wood's interest in getting war and period piece details in his work authentic. He wasn't particulary interested and Kurtzman was a nut about that kind of stuff. In the same interview,Severin got high marks in this regard.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I am always happy to hear from another Wood fan even if we disagree.

I don't claim to be an expert on Wood, but I don't think that either of my two points are terribly controversial. As I understand it, Wood himself was frustrated because his figures were stiff and ungainly compared to the "sleeker" more flexible figures of artists like Alex Raymond and Frank Frazetta. Wood tried harder to overcome this weakness in his EC years (where the spaceman comes from) and in Witzend (when he was inspired) than in his other comic work. I would not have trouble filling several postings with examples of awkward drawing, but why would I want to do that to someone I admire? If you want some easy to spot examples, I would refer you to his Total War series (ouch), or his later Tower work, or his work for DC. And if you really want to see deeply unimpressive drawing, look at his soft and hardcore porn work. Not the worst I've seen but in my view, definitely "mediocre."

As for the Kurtzman quote, I have seen the quote you refer to regarding the accuracy of Wood's military paraphenalia (I believe it was reproduced in Russ Cochran's series) but Kurtzman made a totally separate remark that Wood's figures were stiff and that he got anatomy wrong. I believe you will also find that in Cochran's series. And Kurtzman wasn't the only one. Long after Kurtzman left MAD, Wood had a falling out with the management because they had problems with the quality of his art and he did not take kindly to their comments.

I don't like to spend this much time trashing an artist that I really do like and admire. I hope my admiration for him came across in my posting.

Anonymous said...

Not to take it around the block too much, I promise but...
Anybody who is a fan of Wood's work comes to appreciate the irony of his name. ;)However, figure stiffness and badly proportioned drawing are two different things. Despite the fact that Frazetta's work has a more sinewy and organic feel to it, if you really look, you'll see more really wonky drawing proportion wise than in Wood.
I submit as an example his cover for Famous Funnies #213 with with Buck Rogers and galpal crouching while a monster walks through a Wally Wood type portal.
The woman looks like she has polio and is about 14, and Buck Rogers is a six head high figure, with water on the brain.
Add on to that one of Frazetta's classic two left feet on Buck -Frazetta never learned that the instep of a shoe is a third from the toe and not in the middle like the outer side of a shoe. I don't know if I ever see the kind of wild proportions you get from Frazetta in Wood's work.
Frazetta ultimately is though, exactly like Wood- about slick surface. Though I'll grant he has spent more time working from life and photos and Wood doesn't look like he did much of that. Wood does not know how to paint; he never sees more than 3 values (highlight, middle tone, shadow), so any rendered work looks exceedingly flat. His forte is work with defined with an inkline and he is one of the absolute masters.

I submit to you that what happened in Wood's later career (prior to the porn crap), is not that his work diminished in quality and became feeble, it's just that his approach became dated.It happens to the best as you know.
I don't agree with your assessment of his Tower work, and I certainly don't agree with your assessment of his work at DC.
His inking work at DC is the zenith of his work in that regard, and some of the best inking in comics ever. Wally Wood's inking over Jack Kirby on Challengers of the Unknown is unbelievable work.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I don't think we're so far apart. I do like Wood's inking on Challengers of the Unknown (which if I recall was in the late 50's)but if you look at his return engagement for DC (in the late 1960s) when he was working on comics like Captain Action, I think it is a totally different story. I find this work-- and I'm sorry to be repetitive-- mediocre.

I take your point about Frazetta, although I think with Frazetta the disproportion is less the result of a lack of control and more the result of how he perceives the world; Frazetta draws huge butts on women just like Kirby draws huge fists and shoulders on men. It's almost a subconscious part of the story line.

Finally, as for Wood, what can I say? If you look at the picture I posted of the man walking the panther, you will see that the crate the beatnik is sitting on doesn't line up with the angle of the wall on the right. Neither does the angle at which the beatnik is leaning against the same wall. Neither does the way the beatnik is sitting on the crate; he almost seems to be hovering above it, the way his leg dangles off to the side. These things don't bother me terribly; I would not have bought the art if they did. I expect that kind of disconnect from Wood, but I like him more for his imagination than his drawing ability.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't examined that illustration carefully-it does look odd. Not merely for the perspective, the beatnik seems as if he had been drawn in a different context. The illustration feels as if it's been gelded by overzealous art direction and Wood wasn't interested in doing anything extra after the changes.
You're letting Frazetta off the hook, the badly distorted figures I pointed out do not correspond to stylistic convention-they are just wonked out drawing.You need only go through his early ink illustrations -there's plenty of wacky stuff.
My point-and I do have one-is that you seem to hold Wood to a different standard than most comic artists, If you sit down with your EC library ( or any comic books of the era) and go through it artist by artist, you're going to see a lot of sloppy drawing fly by with regard to proportions, perspective -the whole package.This is one of the reasons why the illustration world looked down on doing comics. But what can you expect for work turned out a such a pace?

Oh, I 'd also add Wood's inking on Bob Oskner for The Angel and the Ape as great DC stuff.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, you are right that I was letting Frazetta off the hook too easily. Frazetta did a lot of crappy comic art (some of which was crappy because it was overworked beyond all proportion, thereby destroying any movement or continuity.) But I suppose I have different expectations for Frazetta because I view him more as a painter / illustrator than a comic artist. I don't think he really became great until he shed the comic artist role and started painting.

I'm not trying to be especially tough on Wood. I would put him above most EC artists (such as Crandall, Evans, Severin, Elder, etc.) I don't even write about those guys! I do try to apply the same standard to all artists-- comic artists, illustrators, old master painters, etc.-- while respecting the differences in their jobs and aesthetic goals.

Ryan Brown said...

Gee, I think your being a little hard on Eisner and Wood. I don't know if you've ever tried to draw comic pages at the rate they did, but it's extremely time consuming. Comics should not be looked at as illustration because- well, they are not. I picked up a recent issue of the Spirit that featured art by Chris Sprouse, and he is a great draughtsman but his characters lack spontaneity and life of the original artist-Eisner. Look at Javier Pulido, he draws quite well but doesn't show it off because he's so engrossed in storytelling. Anyway, I'll shut up now

Ivan said...

David Apatoff: "Second, I am not impressed with the "hip" sophistication that supposedly redeems the current art... Wood was not unaware of bleakness in life; he had health problems and struggled with the bottle and depression before he killed himself. But Wood was never narcissistic enough to fill graphic novels with his personal demons."

First, I think it is not narcissist to fill your art with your personal demons. Art is about giving something from your very self, and intense inner struggles certainly help creation of good art. Second, I think you'll find many demons exactly in Wood's artwork in the form of monsters, aliens, strange phenomena.

The difference between Wood and the modern graphic novelists you target is that he breathed spirit, while the latter are literal, often banal, determinedly unadventurous... the main sense of wonder they produce is how much they succeed in resembling mechanical toys.

Anonymous said...

There has been a multitude of art throughout the history of the human race that is important and necessary and wouldn't live up to your ridiculous, arbitrary standards. You are a fool of the highest order.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, that's always a possibility... there are no guarantees in this line of work. If you have some examples, or theories of your own, I'd love to hear about them.

william wray said...

How could you call Wally Wood mediocre, when he rose above the mediocrity of the comic book medium? An adequate artist who was not very good is the dictionary definition. Do you really mean that? What would you call an average comic artist then? There was too much that was unique about him for that definition to make any sense. Did he hack in a hack medium? Sure, tons of good artists did. That’s how you get the impossible amount of work done that is comics.
My feeling was he was a very naturally talented artist who wasn’t correctly schooled. Teaching yourself to draw from looking at other comic artists is what I call learning from the outside or surface. I understand it all to well, as that is how I thought myself to draw.
It’s actually a really hard way to work, as it’s hard to get any flowing natural confidence to your work when you base it on surface technique thus the stiffness and formula to his “realistic” work. Most artists who have to use reference in the work are hampered by stiffness. Jack Kirby’s work flowed because it was all from his head, he didn’t worry about perfect drawing, and he just accepted it was a “style.” Ironically
Wood could “ draw better” than Kirby that meant he just tired harder at the finish that Kirby did.
That’s why I like Wood’s more cartoony work the best, much of it feels like he drew it from his head so it flowed better. Wood was a troubled man who was at war with himself in his two art styles, his need for self-expression and having to take commercial work. His drinking and drugging that ruined his great love of doing art.
I generally get the point of the article and agree with much of its raw premise, but think you demean a complex artist you supposedly like by your lazy classification. May Art Spiegelman shit in your headphones.

David Apatoff said...

William Wray-- I'm not sure whether I sympathize more with your position or with mine. I love Wood's work and I collect his originals from MAD magazine and EC science fiction. His work is powerful and beautiful and quirky and it always hits me in a sweet, sentimental spot. At the same time, if you look at his work objectively, a lot of it is truly mediocre (even taking into account his personal problems). Stiff, awkward, ungainly figures, heavy handed inking, cheap lighting effects, and layouts and expressions that were repeated so often he might as well have used a stencil. As I say, I love Wood's work but he will always be a guilty pleasure for me.

Most of the artists I write about on this blog I would defend to the chief curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'm sure I would defend Wood too, but objectively speaking I would know in my heart it was a lie.


Bad Art!!

You are in jest I presume??

This comic artist, Wood... is the Michelangello of pencil and India Ink.

I love is art and wish I was half as good.


M. Sloane said...

While I think you're mistaken to call Wood mediocre, I would agree at this point that he was never better than in the pages of MAD, where he took his sound sense of anatomy (so stolid in action stories) and dialed up the exaggeration of proportions to make some of the most brilliant caricature of physical types I have ever seen. And his love for elaborate machine backgrounds which we saw in EC scifi turned out to be perfect for the cluttered comic detail Kurtzman and just post-Kurtzman Mad.

I don't think a man can be as talented as he was in any area of comics or art and it be fair or accurate to describe him as mediocre. Mediocre at what?

David Apatoff said...

M. Sloane-- I understand your point and agree with much of what you say. I love Wood's work, I collect it and often re-read it. But I think most of Wood's greatness comes from his imagination, vision and sense of humor. If you look only at those factors, I'd say he was excellent. As I tried to explain in my post, I think he was "mediocre" in much of his execution: "His figures were stiff and often formulaic. He did a lot of sloppy work. He never quite mastered perspective or foreshortening." If we are fortunate enough to find Wood at his peak, we have a treasure indeed but he did an awful lot of work, from Total War to his later explicit stuff, where I find the drawing just plain mediocre at best. I try to keep in mind that Wood was sick for part that time and drunk for part of that time and underpaid for part of that time. But whatever the reason, when you look at the resulting drawings, and compare them to acknowledged quality drawings, they do not measure up well.

M. Sloane said...

I agree with the basic idea that we don't love an artist because he is accurate, but for more diffuse emotional/spiritual reasons. That has certainly been my relationship with Wally Wood as a longtime follower of his work and the comics too.

Another thing about Wood that I feel belongs in here some place: The rapidly executed sketches and little notebook ideas of his mature period are pretty much all I ask for from a cartoonist -- revealing, witty, free-wheeling and slightly surreal. They remind me of Herriman by way of Walt Kelly.

Wood's studio work was nearly always done with assistants. I'm not trying to blame the other guy for the overall quality of Wood's output. But when I see so much good in that all-Wood off the cuff work, and compare that with, for example, the Total War work (for which he definitely used pencillers and assistants), I believe I see solid proof that Wood the individual is better than Wood the aggregate worker or commodity. I might go so far as to say Wood the humorist is better than Wood the dramatist. But I still think it's pushing it to say Wood was mediocre.

David Apatoff said...

M. Sloane-- If execution were merely a question of "accuracy," this would be a much easier call. I love a whole bunch of artists you would not call accurate.

For me, "execution" includes factors such as accuracy and technical skill, but also design, composition, quality of the line and a whole bunch of other ingredients where I think Wood often came up short. If the "emotional/spritual" impact of art were sufficient without the additional talent/skill involved in execution, we might value art most highly for personal nostalgia or sentiment. (That approach is what has people thinking that Curt Swan is a great artist because they treasure their first Superman comic book, or that Kinkade is great because of his spiritual "Christian" themes of light.)

I share your love of those Wood sketches and those EC / MAD pages, and I do think there is something to be said for rating the quality of an artist on the basis of his or her high water mark. But I think the median quality of Wood's work is surprisingly low for an artist so famous. Try flipping through a stack of Wood comic books panel by panel, looking for a particular drawing that you would objectively consider excellent standing alone. I am guessing you would encounter long dry spells between examples.

But again: I love love love Wood's work. That inconsistency was the reason for this blog post.

Anonymous said...

If these guys are bad, the I wanna be bad too.

Art Lover

Mark Boyd said...

Well, one of the things you must remember is that these artists who do comics, or graphic novels if you like; they aren't doing "illustration". Illustration tends to be more dedicated to representing a story's high points and often approaches fine art in its approach.

No, these guys are storytellers; using their skills to move a plot forward, to make the tale move forward. I think it was in a introduction of one of the Terry and the Pirates graphic albums that Caniff was quoted as saying the illustrations in comic strips have the sole purpose of telling the story as clearly as possible. So in that regard, Wood and especially Eisner were both GREAT artists, because they accomplished EXACTLY what they set out to do, tell good stories. Now one can argue against the STORIES themselves, bu I think that would be rather a silly complaint given that no one is trying to say they were creating classic portrayals of anything.

Kirby once told me that he didn't think of any of his work as being fine art; that it was just storytelling. He knew that his job was to present a story simply, clearly and cleanly, making it easy to read and having as much impact as he could give it in his own way.

All of these guys are stylists. All of them represent pop art at best. Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Eisner, Miller, all of them are simply creating art to tell a story. If they are good, the story is well represented in a graphic form. If not, the story can be confusing and muddled.

To apply the standards of fine art to these artists is to fail at understanding the goal they set out to achieve and to undermine a type of art that has had enough critics blasting at already. Charles Schultz was a genius, but cannot be compared to Reubens.

Compare oranges to oranges already.