Tuesday, February 26, 2008


No one bothers to think too much about Little Orphan Annie anymore. Decades ago, Harold Gray's classic comic strip was analyzed, categorized and interred in the domain of the archivists and historians.

Yet, judged by today's artistic standards, LOA is fresher, more powerful, and visually stronger than many of the latest graphic novels and underground comix. Gray's epic saga of America during the Depression, World War II and the cold war is downright fashionable:

1. Today, slick artistic skill isn't valued as much as a distinctive personal voice. Gray's art was about as distinctive and personal as you can get. He drew human beings that looked like tree trunks (and what's with those eyeballs??) His art appeared freakish compared with other strips of his day, yet today it seems perfectly at home next to the art of R. Crumb or even Gary Larson's Far Side:

2. Today's readers adore Frank Miller's noir style, with his dark view of human nature and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Gray used similar ingredients (minus the garter belts) to make equally gritty, noir pictures. Note how beautifully Gray depicts Death at the door:

I love the hoodlums in this depression-era train yard:

And here is Gray's equivalent of Sin City, circa 1944:

3. Today's readers favor stories by opinionated writer/artists who spin out personally meaningful sagas. Gray probably invested more of his personal philosophy in his strip than any other comic artist of the 20th century. An endearing combination of Ayn Rand, John Bunyan and Charles Dickens, Gray hardly let a week go by without sermonizing about the virtues of self-reliance or the hypocrisy of society.

He also never stopped banging the drum for his own crackpot version of anti-communism:

Some readers complained bitterly about his politics but Gray would not be deterred. Al Capp, creator of Li'l Abner, recalls that Gray took him aside when Capp was just getting started:

I know your stuff, Capp. You're going to be around a long time. Take my advice and buy a house in the country. Build a wall around it. And get ready to protect yourself. The way things are going, people who earn their living someday are going to have to fight off the bums.
No matter where he is categorized, I will always view Gray as an extremely talented and insightful artist. In the following panel, I love how the word balloons curl around the corner, how the cluster of eavesdropping hoodlums form a parabola, and how two random alley cats occupy center stage:

Another typical Gray panel: a surrealistic discussion between an eight foot mystic and a war profiteer, while (a rather freakish looking) Annie listens:

Gray's work may seem crude at first, but it has many nice and subtle touches. Note how Gray conveys the spinelessness of the two lackeys in the following panel:

Little Orphan Annie is an epic American achievement by a vivid storyteller and a genuine eccentric. It might be a good choice for a modern reader of graphic novels looking to upgrade to something better.

After Gray died in 1968, the strip was continued (sometimes under the name Annie ) by a series of different artists (including the great Leonard Starr) but talent can only go so far to compensate for natural born weirdness.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I love Alexander Calder's depiction of Charles Lindbergh flying solo over the Atlantic Ocean.

Calder made pictures with wire. His lines hovered in mid-air, set free from paper.

Our last lovely drawing was a major construction project, planned and executed by Orson Lowell with all the craftsmanship of a master bricklayer. For contrast, I thought it would be fun to visit the opposite extreme: Calder's simple, joyful line.

You'll find no dense cross hatching or shading here. No buttons, shoe laces or fingernails. But what Calder loses in detail, he gains in universality. This image is truly Homeric; it could symbolize any human being tempting the gods by braving the unknown.

It is often difficult for artists to remember that there is no connection between seriousness and profundity, just as there is no connection between the number of lines in a drawing and the importance of its message. This lovely little image from Calder is a good reminder.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008


One of my favorite contemporary illustrators is Thomas Fluharty, whose excellent work has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, The Weekly Standard, U.S. News & World Report and the Village Voice.

Don't get too distracted by the technical virtuosity of his finished paintings-- that's not the real measure of his talent. To see what Fluharty is made of, look at these wonderful studies:

Fluharty draws with strength and conviction. He injects personality, character and insight into his images. And despite the fact that he is truly a nice guy with a gentle spirit, he creates the most scalding caricatures I've ever seen.

These studies should not be viewed as incomplete fragments. Each is a finished and excellent work on its own. This is true of every really good artist I know: the preliminary sketches or underpaintings may indicate just the beginning of a nose or a hand, but they can still stand alone as well designed, coherent images. Check out the studies of Rembrandt or John Singer Sargent or Leyendecker. Their drafts are obviously incomplete in one sense, yet they contain a full microcosm of a finished artistic statement. Beware of artists who strive only for accuracy at the early stages and leave the "design" part for the end.

This is one more way in which the creative process in art seems to mimic the creative process in nature. As the science writer Arthur Koestler said about the rules governing organic life:

"Parts" and "wholes" in an absolute sense do not exist anywhere in the domain of living organisms.... [P]arts... at the same time... function as quasi-autonomous wholes.
In other words, nature organizes the world so that each part of an organism contains the independent properties of a coherent whole. Despite its limitations, a component is endowed with all the properties necessary to be complete and consistent with regard to its own parts. Art that is built from components this way is more likely to end up with the balance and harmony and other aesthetic attributes we find and respect in nature.

For example, if we deconstruct this lovely painting of a gangster, you will find that each stepping stone on the way to the final painting is a true and clear statement.

See how Fluharty uses rapid strokes and a few colors to rough in the shadows and highlights on the knife and fork below. A lot of this vigor will be lost in the final painting, but in the interim version it has a beauty all its own.

This ability to infuse design in the picture from the beginning stages is one of the most reliable tests I know for a picture of quality.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Nearly 100 years ago, a farm boy stole a nude picture from this issue of International Studio Magazine in the public library of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

He left only the foot behind.

Council Bluffs was a small, old fashioned town where farmers stored grain on the way to market. Its citizens followed strict social and religious rules. Perhaps their librarian hoped a subscription to International Studio would bring some much-needed culture to the town.

There weren't many places in town where a young man could see what a naked lady looked like. Some farm boys would soon march off to die in World War I without ever experiencing the sight or touch of a female body.

I had to smile when I discovered the missing picture. The boy's heart must have pounded as he tore it out and smuggled it past the stern librarian. When he got home to his tiny unheated bedroom in a sparse Iowa farmhouse, the secret picture must have given him precious clues to a new world.

I love the smell of old magazines. New magazines are the braying of capitalism-- the latest fashions and trends clamor for reader attention in order to sell merchandise. But once the pageant of capitalism has moved on -- once a periodical has outlived its period-- it takes on an entirely different tone.  Outdated advertisements and faded styles seem humbled and mortal. With the passage of time, even the silliest magazine becomes worthy of profound reflection.

Most of all, the aroma of old magazines reminds me that regardless of the timeless truths that may be printed on them, magazine pages are inevitably returning to wood pulp on the forest floor.  The farm boy who risked everything to steal that picture is surely wood pulp too, or well on his way to becoming so.

Pictures can enlighten us in different ways.  It's easy to revere majestic oil paintings on gilded Renaissance altars, but the revelations from baser art forms are sometimes harder to appreciate.

The cold farmhouse bed where that boy pondered the mysteries of nature is an altar no less sacred (and no more profane) than the gilded church altar.  In fact, if you measure art by its impact on life, there's a good argument that the crumpled picture torn from the magazine had the greater impact.