Monday, March 03, 2014

THE LOST VOCABULARY OF VISUAL STORYTELLING, day 4

A few years ago I wrote about how the great A.B. Frost made use of the gaps between his sequential drawings.

In the following drawing, a man decides to try hypnotism on his wife. 


The second picture skips over her reaction and goes directly to the end result:


Frost implies the action, then leaves it to our imagination to fill in the blanks.  By involving us in the picture, he can make a humble little pen and ink drawing potentially boundless. 

This pacing of the images is another aspect of what I'd call the vocabulary of visual storytelling.

Like Frost, Leonard Starr sometimes chose not to depict the fateful blow, as in the following strip, where a character circles back to get two agents who have been pursuing the heroine.   Starr makes dramatic use of the empty space between his images.

"I convinced them that we were quite another thing..."
 Another well spaced strip, employing the same device :

"It seems to be clear now...."  If anyone knows the whereabouts of this original, I'd be interested in hearing from you.
There are many other ways in which the timing of sequential drawings can be handled effectively or ineffectually.


 But recently, popular notions about the pacing of sequential drawings have changed.  We see sequential drawing that is intended, as one commenter has said, to be "underplayed, understated, deadpan."  Rather than razor sharp timing and theatrical punchlines, we see time sequences stretched out to convey what has been called "bleak humor." This reflects a different set of artistic goals, but in my view those goals lack some of the elegance and power of the previous pacing.


53 Comments:

Blogger Laurence John said...

apple meet orange.

once again David; two very different approaches, each utilised to communicate very different content.

Ware has deliberately used repetition of framing to draw out the awkwardness and duration of the situation.
and the moment where the doctor passes by - and we only see a little bit of him across four panels - is actually using exactly the device you mention; missing information out for the reader to fill in.

3/04/2014 5:07 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/04/2014 9:43 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

The problem with the Ware, in this context, seems more to be the actual pacing of the narrative itself. I don't know if this is bad writing per se, but it's decidedly unpleasant writing.

3/04/2014 9:48 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Well, as far as I can tell, Ware is doing what he is doing on purpose. And he is, as Laurence says, using implication to tell the story. And he is, in my estimation, succeeding in achieving the feelings he attempts to create in the reader. That counts for something, I suppose.

I think the problem I have with this particular Ware piece, and most others I have seen, is just how boring Ware's narrative interests are. Am I supposed to be impressed that he is journalizing all these dull little moments in life in his graphic art? Am I supposed to feel that he has dug a little deeper into these picayune events and revealed something to me I had failed to isolate and appreciate the first time around? Not at all. Instead I feel I am being forced to relive uninteresting moments I already noticed perfectly well in the first place, thank you very much.

To look at this through the lens of romanticism: Two of the Romantic tenets were codified as "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary" and "showing the extraordinary to be ordinary" ... both of which are about significant revelation, transforming, paradigm shifts, and being awaken to the extraordinary all around us. Here we have Ware carving out and isolating for appreciation the mundane within the mundane, and translating it into graphic form for our disinterested inspection.

But I don't appreciate the mundane... because there is nothing there to appreciate. That's just why it is called mundane. It is inherently time poorly spent to live the mundane, and it seems to me to be throwing good time after bad to re-experience it in graphic form. Who needs to have their souls awakened to the mundane?

And just because some egg-head calls the mundane "the true tone of our busy lives" or "the ultra-mundane" is of absolutely no consequence to me. The naming or renaming of the mundane doesn't make it any more interesting or significant or worthy of inspection.

And there is this other thing that bothers me; Ware's anti-romantic interests are in absolute lockstep with the tolerances of the pseudo sophisticated cultural mandarins we keep lamenting. It may not be that Ware is consciously following their dictates for what is allowable in visual art, but he may well have been so immersed in their ideas as he grew up, that he couldn't help but be exactly as ultramundane as they want him to be, because he is that kind of fellow. I guess this is why I keep feeling this, for want of a better term, obedience in his work that I detest. I feel servility when I experience Ware's work and I find such psychology pathetic and claustrophobic. In what way is my life enriched by being exposed to such a temperament?

On the other hand, I can't say that Leonard Starr's storytelling is giving me much to cheer about either. Only in comparison to really bad work does Starr's workaday adequacy become extraordinary. On its own, it is imaginatively tame compared to the heights achieved by Toth and others. It is drawn well, however.

3/04/2014 10:51 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- Is it really so difficult to isolate similarities and differences for purposes of a worthwhile comparison?

We are looking at two US comic artists, both working in pen and ink on paper. Both making sequential art published in Chicago newspapers in the 20th century. Both making representational pictures (although in different styles) using word balloons. If you think that two such artists are so very different that there is nothing to be gained from comparing their work, I think you are giving up too easily. Rather than calling them apples and oranges, could we at least say they are two different kinds of apples?

Both artists are using the same tool-- the sequence of pictures and the spaces between them-- and your objection seems to be that they are conveying two different messages.

I think there is a lot to your point that "Ware has deliberately used repetition of framing to draw out the awkwardness and duration of the situation." At the same time, Ware himself writes that Jimmy Corrigan started as an "improvisatory exercise" and that five years into it he found himself "mired" in "the swampy muck of of a story which now seemed to have no end in sight." This surely must have contributed to the desultory pacing of Ware's work.

I think this nicely frames up what I think is the core issue here. In earlier years, literature was crafted to satisfy certain artistic forms, such as a haiku or a novel. Language was polished and refined to achieve the highest level of beauty attainable by the standards of that archetype. During the modern era, artists (understandably) began to question the relevance of that art process and to reject conventional archetypes with linear narratives (such as the novel) because they were artificial and divorced from reality. Enter "stream of consciousness" and numerous other less disciplined forms of writing. Postmodernist author William Burroughs noted that in real life, you might be walking down the street having the kind of ordered, mannerly conversation found in a Jane Austen novel, but in reality your mind keeps jumping in and out, keeping lists or looking at the people passing by or being distracted by that honking horn n a passing car. He wrote to reflect that reality.

In my view, Starr writes beautifully crafted narratives in short form, often with a snap at the end, orchestrating a wide range of visual and literary tools. He has a beginning, a middle and an end every day, and he designs the spaces between his pictures in accpordance with that convention. Ware, on the other hand, for all his elaborate graphic designs and constructs attached one after the other, seem far less disciplined to me. Every once in a great while he manages to sum up a conclusion or even a punch line but mostly He seems content to open his veins and bleed.

That is a key difference between the two approaches, but that shouldn't stop us from comparing them and forming conclusions about which we find more artistically satisfying.

3/04/2014 11:02 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>"he may well have been so immersed in their ideas as he grew up, that he couldn't help but be exactly as ultramundane as they want him to be, because he is that kind of fellow. "


I'm not sure it has anything to do with philosophy, from what I can tell from glimpses of his personality, it seems to be all temperament.


>>"Every once in a great while he manages to sum up a conclusion or even a punch line but mostly he seems content to open his veins and bleed."


"When I look back at what I've done, all I can see are mistakes, or the terrible drawing. Oh jeez, this character's eye is four inches off to the side, and I just think, it looked fine to me when I drew it, but now I can look back and see, Oh, this is horrible. Or I'll just see through the lies, and the terrible writing. I try to be as honest and distant from myself as I can while I'm writing to try to see things as accurately as I can, but it hardly ever works." -chris ware, on his comics

3/04/2014 11:58 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David, i don't think there's anything i could say at this stage that could convince you that there's something in Ware's work you're missing. i think it's safe to say that Ware's work either connects with you or it doesn't and it clearly doesn't connect with you or Kev.

most of the modernist strands of literature: Joyce, Burroughs, Beckett etc divide audiences into those who 'get it' or don't.

Richard, that last quote sounds exactly like Woody Allen talking about his films. lots of artists only see the mistakes when they look back over past work.

3/04/2014 12:19 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I'm not sure it has anything to do with philosophy, from what I can tell from glimpses of his personality, it seems to be all temperament.

If you grow up immersed in a philosophy, it becomes an integral part of you. So much so, that it takes an invisible hand in everything you think or do. That is what I meant. Not that he was conforming to, or obeying any viewpoint consciously.

This is, of course, the greatest value of controlling cultural information. "Get them when they're young, be the wallpaper of their lives, and you have them forever." It is the same with corporate branding, religion, politics, parenting, or anything else. The surest method of control is to the seed the control into the temperament.

3/04/2014 12:23 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Laurence, I "get it", I just don't want it.

3/04/2014 12:25 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>>most of the modernist strands of literature: Joyce, Burroughs, Beckett etc divide audiences into those who 'get it' or don't.


Different people are (unconsciously) drawn to find ways to press specific buttons in their heads. It's no more accurate to say we don't 'get it', than it would be to say a straight man doesn't 'get' gay porn.



>>>Richard, that last quote sounds exactly like Woody Allen talking about his films. lots of artists only see the mistakes when they look back over past work.


That's no surprise, Woody Allen and Ware seem to have a lot common.

3/04/2014 12:32 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>lots of artists only see the mistakes when they look back over past work.

Also, that suggests to me that they aren't very good artists to begin with.

The first part of being a good artist is having built a great "spirit" (wink at kev), and if you have such a lowly, sniveling personality that you can't see the good in your work then you haven't completed the penultimate requirement in being a worthwhile artist.

3/04/2014 12:40 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Richard, every artist I know, and I know some damn good ones, has trouble not seeing the mistakes of their past works. The quote from Ware is completely unremarkable.

3/04/2014 12:47 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Seeing the mistakes in your past work, and seeing ONLY the mistakes, are a difference of kind.

3/04/2014 1:11 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Mistakes jump out at you once you get some perspective on a work. They "glare," in the common parlance of artists. Nothing unusual that glaring things attract attention through constant annoyance and divert you from noticing much else.

Also, you are taking one quote of his from one interview and taking it to be his entire lifelong view of his work. Massive induction fallacy there. And you are taking him extremely literally too, when he could be just being humble for the interviewer, or temporarily fixated on his limitations, or simply speaking with hyperbole (slight or extensive).

3/04/2014 3:04 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>you are taking him extremely literally too, when he could be just being humble for the interviewer, or temporarily fixated on his limitations, or simply speaking with hyperbole


I am taking him literally, yes, that was the tone of his voice in the interview.

Also, I think you're missing the forest for the trees. I'm saying the guy has a personality at odds with making great art, something I dare say you would likely agree with, whether or not you believe what he said to be as telling as I do.

3/04/2014 3:19 PM  
Anonymous Jaylat said...

This is a great series, and a very necessary one. Thanks so much for posting it!

Not only is the current state of visual storytelling worse than before, but the writing has gone downhill as well. There really are no memorable comic / sequential stories being told today. "Literary" figures such as Ware do well, I suspect, not because they are good but because readers want to be seen as reading intelligent fiction - the more pretentious the better.

At least Ware is capable of drawing well.

3/04/2014 3:26 PM  
Blogger White Whale Studio said...

2 different apples, to be sure! This is like comparing Carey Grant, to Louis CK. The material calls for completely different approaches. Cinematic compositions and fast pacing are perfectly executed and appropriate for the kinds of stories being told by Starr.

To me, Ware seems to be interested in exploring every single facet of the moment. The sounds, the smells, the mundanity. His comics go beyond pure entertainment for me. I can relate to his stories in a way I never could with most other creators. Not just the experiences he shares, but in the way he tells them. The work is so sensitive and personal. My criticism of Ware is that sometimes he expects a little too much from his readers. There are times, especially in Building Stories, where I wished for a traditional staple bound comic, with a left to right panel format.

As for the drawing, I agree that the overwhelming majority of comics produced today are just awful. Any time I open a Best American Comics Annual (or anything edited by Brunetti) I feel like I'm watching a Fred Frith performance. But, to say Ware's cartoon work is that bad has to be an overstatement. I've seen Ware's sketchbooks and he is perfectly capable of drawing accurate figures and scenes. However, I could not imagine his comics illustrated by Starr. I don't see why that would even be necessary. There are no car chases here. No fist fights, or fence leaping. The fact that such real characters, in painful situations are illustrated with neatly drawn little cartoons only add to the effect he is after.

His stories are entirely about sad shit that happens to forgettable people. And I think those are the most original and necessary stories not being told today.

3/04/2014 3:34 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

i think that within a narrative that may appear ALL mundane, Ware creates many little opportunities for the numinous to be glimpsed, even if the main characters don't even notice it, or know what to make of it.

he often contrasts the pettiness of man with the indifference of nature. there are many little nods toward the 'eternal' but they're not signposted. death, the passage of time and memory are recurring themes.

3/04/2014 4:32 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I'm saying the guy has a personality at odds with making great art...

Not sure I agree with you. Hyper-sensitivity, stick-to-it-iveness, and basic technical competency are a good foundation to build upon. He's too interesting a artist to count out.

sad shit that happens to forgettable people

/thread

3/04/2014 4:38 PM  
Blogger Donald Pittenger said...

Sorry to break in, Kev and Laurence, but something I notice when I (seldom, admittedly) thumb through a graphic novel is that there can be extended sequences of panels doing a slo-mo of some sort of action or process. Few or no words. Just a bunch of quick cuts. Quite the opposite of what David was discussing regarding Starr.

3/04/2014 5:45 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

 
Hi David

"We can have a separate discussion about which cultural perspective is more admirable. There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides. One reason I tend to emphasize artists here who celebrate idealized beauty (Fuchs, Starr and others of their era) is that I think many people lack the experience to appreciate that the cringing self-awareness of Chris Ware is not a higher level of consciousness, superior to dumb, idealized characters-- it's just a more fashionable attitude for now."

I think you are on to something.  The movement you describe goes from the self confidence in values that will allow one to act in the world, to almost the exact opposite, a helplessness that has no control over external events with acceptance being the character's only choice. 



  So my question would be why did publishers choose L. Starr in the early sixties and today they choose Chris Ware?  Both artists are communicating values.

  Your third day post, the modern super hero panels have so much "information " that the panels seem almost meaningless. Almost all the shapes in the drawings are the exact same size, talking about monotony.    As if the artist can not order the minor from the major. It's mind numbing, no change of pace, no pauses, no contrasts, only sameness.  How many fire works can we shoot off to hold your attention? 

And how's this for a "difference in the underlying culture,"
"The uses of geometry are not confined to carpentry and architecture,but, in the various branches of mathematics, it opens and discovers to us their secrets.  It teaches us to contemplate truths, to trace the chain of them, subtle and almost imperceptible, as it frequently is, and to follow them to the utmost extent.( Peter Nicholson, the carpenter's new guide 1793.)

3/05/2014 12:21 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "On its own, it is imaginatively tame compared to the heights achieved by Toth and others. It is drawn well, however."

Kev, I am a big fan of Toth's work, but mostly his drawing. In fact, he never struck me as much of a writer and I would not have put him close to Starr's league. Can you point me to some of Toth's "heights"?

3/05/2014 5:53 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Tom: "I think you are on to something. The movement you describe goes from the self confidence in values that will allow one to act in the world, to almost the exact opposite, a helplessness that has no control over external events with acceptance being the character's only choice."

it would take a long time to discuss all of the reasons why there are people in the world who feel like the latter type.

it seems that those who dislike Ware are really opposed to him on idealogical grounds rather than artistic ones.

David: "One reason I tend to emphasize artists here who celebrate idealized beauty (Fuchs, Starr and others of their era) is that I think many people lack the experience to appreciate that the cringing self-awareness of Chris Ware is not a higher level of consciousness, superior to dumb, idealized characters-- it's just a more fashionable attitude for now."

David, i haven't read anyone suggesting that Ware's worldview is a 'higher level of consciousness'. you mentioned Simplicissimus magazine which pre-dates the 'idealism' of Fuchs or Starr by quite some way; many of the artists of that era were drawing grotesque - far from idealised - imagery. many of them, post WW1, saw life as brutal and absurd. it's hardly something that's only become fashionable in the last 20 years.

Kev: "It may not be that Ware is consciously following their dictates for what is allowable in visual art, but he may well have been so immersed in their ideas as he grew up, that he couldn't help but be exactly as ultramundane as they want him to be, because he is that kind of fellow"

i think you can go too far with the idea that all art which represents the values you dislike has necessarily been produced in accordance with modernism / post-modernism's agenda. a lot of people born in Ware's generation (X) share an outlook on life born of similar circumstances, such as witnessing the decline of industry within their region, lack of jobs which promote a feeling of self worth, globalisation, etc.
to imply that everyone who writes about unhappiness, the absurdity of life, existential angst etc. has somehow been unwittingly brainwashed by the post-modern nihilist elite strikes me as borderline conspiratorial thinking.

3/05/2014 7:12 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

opposed to him on idealogical grounds rather than artistic ones

As I've stated, I'm not a comic book guy, so take what I say or leave it. I understand what you mean in the context of the conversation here, but ultimately the ideological aspects are inseparable from the artistic ones; what I have seen of Ware's work is, to use Kev's favorite paradigm, semiotically closer to symbols and language than it is to formal abstract visual beauty.

3/05/2014 8:58 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

etc etc,

i haven't suggested anywhere that Ware's work constitutes 'formal, abstract, visual beauty'.
if you're implying that a language of simple cartoons and graphic symbols can't be 'art', then i disagree.

3/05/2014 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno, man. Seems to me you're exalting the clever presentation of physical violence or the threat of it over a presentation of the kind of mundanity which does violence to the soul.
I seem to recall Groth writing that Toth wouldn't have anything to do with him after an interview wherein Groth called out Toth for his history of beautifully illustrated and poorly written stories.
I personally can't see that Starr melodrama beats out Toth melodrama. And by the seventies Starr got so slick I found my eyes sliding right off the images, while Toth retained visual interest.
But overall I prefer Adams on "Ben Casey", except for the silly hidden head gimmick.
By the way, anybody know if Groth rhymes with Toth?

3/05/2014 9:11 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

i think Toth was more interested in the language of visual storytelling than the message. in an interview from the early 90s (i don't have the magazine here, so i'm paraphrasing) he was trouncing artists who were only interested in creating 'pretty pictures' while their storytelling was all over the place. he said something like "i don't care if the artist uses a burnt matchstick to draw with as long as the story is well told".

3/05/2014 9:23 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- Exactly; post WW I Germany was an era of great disillusionment, poverty and cynicism, where the idealized beauty of Athens could not resonate. People would have assumed that the taste and values of Athens were fake. The mood of the art was dark and vile.

On the other hand, post WW II in America was a time of victory and celebration, of returning to long deferred dreams, material wealth and great promise. The illustrations in women's magazines were of beautiful girls and handsome men, stylishly dressed, buying cars and flirting in tasteful surroundings.

If I may generalize, both of these phases ultimately passed away, as part of the great cycle. In the US, Chris Ware and Chester Brown were of the generation that said "Hey... life isn't like a Norman Rockwell painting after all! Where is that loving mother, the pet dog, the house in the suburbs? I am so disillusioned! I was robbed!" And their art reacts against those lies. The curtain has been pulled aside and we now see who the real Wizard of Oz is, unlike the poor blind saps of that earlier, innocent generation.

When I say it is a "higher level of consciousness," I just meant that it sees through the lies of the ideal, feels that it is now sadder but wiser and can't imagine unlearning the knowledge it has gained, in order to regain its innocence. Irony become the order of the day. Jimmy Corrigan becomes the order of the day. Snarky humor is everywhere.

But you can only remain in that phase of the cycle for so long. Eventually, somebody writes a biography about Norman Rockwell and we realize that Rockwell was haunted by his own demons and feelings of inadequacy, and was under no illusions about the nature of the world, and yet was able to practice and aspire to that wholesome kind of beauty. Nietzsche, who led a miserable life, wrote "Some who cannot see what is high in man call it virtue that they see all-to-closely what is low in man; thus they call their evil eye virtue."

I think illustration is in a phase where we see all too closely what is low in man-- from R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar and Gilbert Shelton, etc, etc, through Panter and Ware and Brown. And people can't help but discount those simple-minded "pleasantville" drawings of the 50s and 60s because the subject matter seems fake to them and people are too inexperienced to understand how we will ever get out of this phase and regain the innocence necessary to appreciate such things again. They don't yet recognize that this, too, shall pass.

3/05/2014 9:39 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

i haven't suggested anywhere that Ware's work constitutes 'formal, abstract, visual beauty'.

Well then, logically and from a plain old common sense perspective, you shouldn't have any problems in coming to grips with the fact that many people are and could be opposed to Ware's work on artistic grounds.

3/05/2014 10:02 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David,

don't forget that there was cynicism around in the 40s and 50s too; film noir and the beat writers for example. the idealised imagery of that period was just the sunny side of things.

we still have those idealised images of a 'perfect' life all around us; in advertising imagery of beautiful young people in designer clothes. of people in expensive cars and with the latest luxury goods. they're really the modern equivalent of those 1950s 'perfect nuclear family' images; we know they're fake but we still want to believe in the fantasy anyway. nothing's changed really.

as for art i think it's part of the job of the artist to see behind the facade. art that doesn't do that - art which basically serves a 'feel good' function or which just creates images of a human utopia - descends into kitsch or propaganda art.

i'm not suggesting that art needs to be all "isn't everything doomed and pointless", but that it requires a certain objectivity on the part of the artist to create something more clear sighted.

3/05/2014 11:03 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

We are talking about visual storytelling here. Not story writing. Nor are we talking about drawing, necessarily. (Starr's drawing is professional and crisp throughout.)

What I have seen of Starr's writing seems like a soap opera with a little bit of intrigue thrown in. Exactly like hollywood boilerplate of that era; an exotic locale, a pinch of Alfred Hitchcock and James Bond, a pretty actress or two, on-the-nose or clunky dialogue, a macguffin in the briefcase, a trusted ally betrayal, a peculiar-looking tough, the secret mission to the fortified embassy, a dark figure jumps out of the bushes, etc. And I don't mind that, because the real storytelling is how it is told with the visuals. Which is why the same story illustrated by Don Heck and Bill Sienkiewicz will be miles apart in terms of experience.

So I am just talking about how Starr is creating and arranging his visual storytelling. And I find it, like his writing, stock. Functional, adequate, but uninspired. I don't think he actually believes the story he is telling. I think he is just constructing it from parts. The flow between panels is not being used very well, and his blocking is not adequate to his level of detail. If we were to break down the first two On Stage strips you've posted here, panel by panel, it would be a shredding.

Just in the first one, the continuity between the first two panels completely takes me out of the story. The 180 degree rule (which is crucial) if not quite broken, is abused. The guy who just appears behind the hat-wearing character somehow ends up between the tree in the first panel and the hatted man, which means he must have done a bunny hop under the branch between the first and second panels, which is silly. The light that is casting the branch shadow onto the guy's head in the second panel would have lit front of the tree in the first panel. The blocking between the three characters in the first two panels is not established (why don't we see a little bit of the fallen man at the bottom right corner of the second panel, so we know he's still there. Or why don't we see a little bit of the surprising man in the first panel, along the right border)

And then we cut away on the third panel to two more characters. Are they in the same jungle? Is that character in the background the same guy as the one that popped from behind the tree in the second panel? Because he went from looking Teutonic to looking Mexican. And why didn't the hatted man's gun fire if he was attacked? He surely would have had time while the attacker was saying his dumb action-movie line.

And that line "You're right to look alarmed, my friend. You're looking at very bad news indeed," really needs just the hint of a raised fist to accompany it for someone new to the strip. Otherwise it takes several minutes to discover what has happened between panel two and three, particularly as the attacker looks different from panel to panel.

And does anybody really think in sentences like, "...Is the wallet the reason for this evacuation? It worried Volkov, all right, but... there he is! Outside the gate!!" (This is classic expository writing. And, as Chas Palminteri says to John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway "You don't write like people talk.")

Lastly, the big action scene in the colored sunday reads in terms of the animation of the forms between panels, but the fellow is running to the right of the tree in panel 3 and jumps on a branch to the left of it. A branch that would probably not hold him. And doing a maneuver that cannot be done in one swing. And over a wall that must have no thickness to it whatsoever for him to make the move he does all in one effort. The wall is as thin as the newsprint it is printed on. Again, I think Starr is constructing all of this stuff from cliches and doesn't believe any of it in his heart, so all these continuity problems are happening. Maybe he never climbed trees or walls as a kid.

3/05/2014 11:24 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>>"I think illustration is in a phase where we see all too closely what is low in man-- from R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar and Gilbert Shelton, etc, etc, through Panter and Ware and Brown."


David, I have to protest again, why is this how you're characterizing illustration today?

These guys are nobodies except to the handful of art history hipsters who have been writing this progressivist post-modern history of comics and illustration.

By and large the public doesn't care about these guys, other artists don't care about these guys, and publishers are not in any way looking for this sort of work, so who exactly are you criticizing here except the Yale Art History department?

3/05/2014 11:58 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

To again put out some figures to clarify just how irrelevant these guys are, lets look at Harvey Pekar since hes supposed to be one of the big names according to the Art Historian hipsters --

When his American Splendor Season Two came out in April 2008 it sold 7,000 issues. That puts it in the 202nd place for that month, behind such behemoths of illustration as... Uncle Sam & the Freedom Fighters, and Jenna Jameson's Shadow Hunter.

3/05/2014 12:14 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Richard,
do you think that sales figures say anything about the quality of a work ?

3/05/2014 12:44 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/05/2014 1:24 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think it suggests something about the work that has made it popular (outside of those artists who were just spent to the top of the charts), whether or not that specific quality is important to me is another story. To make a comparison with popular music, I by and large prefer music that is progressive, operatic, with a complexity of time signatures and unusual harmonies, but I understand that music today is primarily about the novelty of the hook and the production level, and I can take a far enough step back to see why those works are popular even if those aren't the primary criteria I look for in a musician.


In a discussion comparing the works of the past to the works of today it seems disingenuous to use as examples of today's work those comics which are specifically known to be unpopular outsider works who have followings consisting primarily of hipster academics.

It would be like comparing Les Paul to Neutral Milk Hotel. Sure, there are some hipster academics today who will claim NMH is one of the greatest songwriters working today, but it's a relatively small group, and the public at large has no idea who he they are in spite of their being wildly popular amongst certain cultural elites and academics.

3/05/2014 2:08 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Two headed boy with weights and pulleys

There's the problem...people cluelessly live in a world of recycled culture tweaked to make them think it's fresh and hip.

3/05/2014 2:45 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Michael Stipe and Jeff Mangum of NMH are friends actually, so there's probably something to that.

3/05/2014 2:53 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Richard, there seems to be two questions being asked by David...

1-why are certain comics critically acclaimed when they're mediocre in the drawing / storytelling dept. ?

2-have comics -generally- lost the art of visual storytelling ?


just to recap my position:


1- i think they're critically acclaimed because either the content is deemed more highbrow and/ or the art ticks certain avant garde / modernist boxes.
i think in many, but not all cases, the drawing and storytelling isn't necessarily weaker, it's just being done differently (and there isn't just one bag of storytelling devices either).

2- in most of the popular superhero genre stuff i'd say yes, but there's still lots of examples of excellent work out there.

(like David i don't share your enthusiasm for Japanese comics. i've yet to see one that made me want to buy it).

3/06/2014 9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the last of your series on Starr? I hope there is more. He is my new favorite.

JSL

3/06/2014 9:44 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara and Laurence John-- re Toth, I agree that he was excellent and I think Laurence captures my own sense of why: "Toth was more interested in the language of visual storytelling than the message" and he was first rate. I also think Tith was absolutely right about the burnt matchstick. Kev confused me at first with his comment about the imaginative heights of Toth's storytelling, because (unlike Starr) Toth did very little writing as far as I am aware. If we are talking about visual storytelling, Kev and I will just have to disagree (notwithstanding his very thorough effort to second guess Starr's staging on the examples here). Starr's storytelling was more moderate, and conformed to the requirements of a strip that had to satisfy different formats in hundreds of newspapers. I like stories that shout (like Toth's) but I also like stories that purr or hum.

3/06/2014 12:28 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>(like David i don't share your enthusiasm for Japanese comics. i've yet to see one that made me want to buy it).

Obviously I can't make you buy something, but I think anyone who is suspicious of manga ought to read Katsuhiro Otomo's Domu (Chris James mentioned this guy two posts ago). Otomo is the guy who created the anime Akira, which is incredible if you haven't had the chance to see it. His "Domu" is, as far as I have seen, the greatest piece of comics ever created.

Unfortunately, because of the sheer vast quantity of manga produced, and the unfortunate age demographics of manga in the US, we usually only get the garbage. But it's important to keep in mind that 64% of 20 somethings, 31% of 30 somethings, 24% of 40 somethings, and 10% of 50 somethings in Japan report reading manga on a regular basis. There is quite a lot of it aimed at older audiences that we don't easily get our hands on.

3/06/2014 12:32 PM  
Blogger Vicki said...

David, I would like to introduce you to a comic book artist whose pictures tell the inside of the story, using many of the subtleties that you have found missing in many contemporary comic books. His name is Seth Fisher, and he died in 2006, with a small but brilliant output. The comic books he worked on were mostly superhero ones, but his artwork raised them above the adolescent level that we think of with superhero stories. Here is a link to one page in which the pictures add expression that is more than the words alone can give. http://www.floweringnose.com/art/batman-snow/issue-194/page-22/batman-legends-dark-knight-194-page-22

More can be found in the gallery and blog on his website at www.floweringnose.com

3/07/2014 2:14 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

David, what a nice series with Starr, I really appreciate it and the comments are as good. Starr's confident drawing is the polar opposite of Ware's tepid humor. Ware seems to be trying to do what Ernie Bushmiller did with Nancy and Harry Hanan did with a one panel cartoon called Louie which some may remember from the 1960s and 70s. Both Nancy and Louie were masterpieces of humor and storytelling regarding the simplest events of daily life.

The subject of the use of hands, storytelling itself and other aspects of being with people seem to be getting lost in the almost, but not quite relationships of telecommunications.

3/11/2014 1:23 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

The example by Ware is placing an abstract frame around the absurdities or weirdness of being, which adolescents and disoriented people on drugs often find hysterical. It is funny, but not in a particularly warm, charming or edifying way as were Nancy and Louie which also played off the ordinary.

In this case, a man reduced to humiliation in a waiting room does elicit a certain empathy, but if so, does it do so at the expense of the absurd humor? Maybe so or maybe not, but the drawing itself is somewhat pathetic in its stiffness and that is the point I think David was making, that the pacing and timing lack a certain power and elegance of an earlier era. Such is a legitimate and glaring understatement as we can see from this series of posts with Starr.

What the posts are also asking is, have we also lost our alertness, some of our wit, our wherewithal, visual clarity and orientation along with the loss of our skills? Did they all come together as part of a package?


3/11/2014 10:03 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

PS: The New Yorker has been host to cartoons having laughs on the delicate and feeble nature of domesticated life for decades, so Ware isn't on any new ground, but that guy paralyzed over buying or not buying the answering machine may be saying more about what's become of people in an age of endless choices than anyone wants to know. It's kind of scary to think such paralysis is something a great many people can relate to.

3/11/2014 3:09 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Starr's storytelling was more moderate, and conformed to the requirements of a strip that had to satisfy different formats in hundreds of newspapers. I like stories that shout (like Toth's) but I also like stories that purr or hum.

I think this opposition you are setting up, moderate versus shouting, doesn't track. The reason Toth's stuff looks startling is because (in his mature work, anyway) he is thinking freshly about how to achieve his storytelling effects every time out of the box. That freshness, that feeling of real aesthetic life that his work exhibits is not at all the same thing as sensationalism for its own sake. It is simply restless talent and dedicated craft working in tandem. (Also, Toth's work, as I see it, is filled with brilliant quiet moments. But their brilliance makes them loud.)

I don't find the talent of Starr to be of the restless variety. There is some nice subtlety in Starr's acting choices/ideas, and his staging can be smart indeed. But most often I find myself starved by his artistic vocabulary... Which seems to consist mostly of conventions; the standard easily-referenced shot set-ups and figures, and establishing shots from the most easily referenceable or drawable perspective. Additionally, his inking style is mostly constituted of the inking conventions developed by Alex Raymond during his run on Rip Kirby, (as the influences of modern slick-mag illustrations and photo-reference changed Raymond's approach). Noting the above, that Starr's writing seems to also be built of conventions seems unlikely to be a coincidence. One meets intelligent, deadline-driven artists all the time whose artistic vocabulary consists solely of "what worked for the other guy" and "what reference do I have on hand or is the easiest to get."





3/11/2014 7:03 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I agree with you that Starr's talent was not restless like Toth's, but I also think that the publications where the artists appeared made a big difference. I think the apogee of Toth's restless creativity took place in publications that gave Toth a long leash (Warren magazines, DC mystery comics, hot wheels, etc. in the 60s and 70s). These magazines encouraged bold splash panels, panels shaped like lightning bolts, figures popping out of panels and creative word balloons. Comic strips never permitted this flexibility, both for formatting reasons and because strips catered to a more general audience; southern conservative newspapers would've had little tolerance for an artist like Toth.

I'd be interested in what you think of as Toth's "brilliant quiet moments" Most of the work I can think of along those lines is earlier work, in EC where Harvey Kurtzman was pushing back and restraining Toth, or a few choice moments in the Zorro books.

Sean Farrell wrote: "Starr's confident drawing is the polar opposite of Ware's tepid humor."

There is a political / cultural subtext to much of this discussion which I have avoided because we have more than our hands full with the aesthetics alone. But it is inescapable that Starr's strip, including its art, focuses on idealized, attractive people with strong chins, who speak intelligently and have long term, fulfilling marriages. The confident brush strokes of the 50s and 60s was a style befitting this message.

At some point it became acceptable to say out loud that this was not the whole story; that there were gay people being tortured and oppressed, or that there were interesting, subversive people with the vision to see the lies in the system. Those confident brush strokes began to turn into scraggly lines. OK.

However, the pendulum seems to have swung so far that graphic novels are now full of cringing and moaning types who are withered neurotics, incapable of fulfilling relationships or idealistic action.

Chester Brown says he can't manage a decent relationship with a partner so he is resigned to paying for sex. Until recently, Chris Ware's work was obsessed with loneliness, alienation and abandonment. When Crumb and Pekar began this trend years ago, their work was an entertaining anomaly going against the cultural grain. Now there seems to be nothing but desolation in this field, as far as the eye can see.

One wonders how adolescents will learn to develop constructive, positive relationships in a culture so entertained by the low and the depraved.

3/13/2014 7:12 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David,

I do understand the limitations Starr's venues placed on his creativity. I don't think that accounts fully for the (imo) staid quality of his output. The ultra-clean virtuosity of Raymond on Rip Kirby sparkles by comparison.

Regarding Toth's quiet moments, we may get into a definitional war over what exactly constitutes a "quiet moment". Leaving that aside, I don't have time now to really search for the very best Toth quiet moments. But, anyway, the very first toth page I grabbed on google has a beautiful quiet feeling... but with the addition of suspense and intrigue. And then the beautiful panel which causes the effect of surprise when the attacker appears out of nowhere, figuratively and graphically... it's just sublime sequential artistry.

3/14/2014 2:54 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Vicki-- Thank you for writing. I am aware of Seth's work and his tragic death in Japan. I admire what he accomplished and I hope that readers will follow your link to see Seth's work, which deserves an audience.

Kev Ferrara-- I love that Toth page; I bought that comic book as a kid and that page knocked my socks off. Looking at it years later, I still regard it as comic art at its best.

You're right, we would probably differ over the use of the word "quiet"-- the story has to do with quiet stalking, but to me, the brushwork seems to a riot of bold, slashing lines (unlike, say, a Blechman). But I attach no significance to the label. If that's what you mean, I agree that Toth had it in spades.

On your comparison between Starr and Toth, I agree that their venues don't account for all the difference, I think the venues just reinforced their pre-existing proclivities. I think that compared to Toth, Raymond's Rip Kirby is similarly staid and compartmented. (Flash Gordon, which gave Raymond both the elbow room and subject matter to be more aggressive, is a little closer).

As an aside, I think the comparison between Rip Kirby and On Stage is an interesting one (made even more interesting by the fact that King Features wanted Starr replace Raymond when he died, and Starr turned them down in order to give his own strip a try). I agree that nobody sparkled like Raymond, but I will surprise you by telling you that in a number of ways I prefer Starr's strip-- I think it was a much smarter strip, better written with more sensitivity to facial expressions and a better understanding of body language. (Raymond had a limited collection of facial templates thinly disguised by goofy mustaches and other obvious props.)

3/14/2014 4:19 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Is your definition of "quiet moments" when people stand around and talk? Because that would be my definition of a talky moment. "Talky" being generally understood as a pejorative in a visual medium. Which is to say, if we want to speak of the lost vocabulary of visual storytelling, we should start by acknowledging that the best writing in visual forms has always been where dialogue doesn't play into it. The reverence for strong "silent film" storytelling is warranted in both film and comics. So I find it a bit difficult to square the idea of Starr being a strong writer, with the amount of standing around and talking that goes on. Not to mention that the one silent film action sequence I'm seeing, of the guy magically flying over that paper thin wall, doesn't impress.

I do think there is a nice naturalism to Starr's figural groupings in those talky moments, especially how he hides figures so only a little part of the face shows. And his framing of midground elements with foreground ones is very solid. And his hands are good, as you've mentioned. And maybe, after all, one must play to one's strengths.


3/14/2014 7:35 PM  
Blogger Catherine Hex said...

I liked the first two images very much. It's a pity that comics nowadays offer children no possibility of having a rich imagination...

3/17/2014 5:55 AM  
Anonymous Frank said...

Been tracking Starr's comic work for a little while now, I'm taking notes on this four part article for his strong points.

However, I find problematic to compare Starr's work to Ware's in the way it's done here; those are two comics that have been produced having with two very different audiences in mind, in two different time periods; two different contexts that have different principles of what's "good" or "bad".

If you judge a piece of art with the principles of a different context, the piece will most likely be seen in a bad, or at least odd, light, because it didn't fulfill that other context's principles of what's good (nor did it aim to), while at the same time, you won't be able to see see much virtue in the piece, since the principles you're using don't consider those virtues as such.

As an example, an older guy, used to comics from decades past, may look at today's comics as bland, crude or garish; and only appreciate newer stuff if it apes to the styles he's used to, and even then considering them a pale imitation. On the other hand, a younger guy used to current comics, may see older comics as formulaic or unexciting; whatever he may deem "good" in those older comics, he's already seen it in newer ones (assimilated, first or second hand, from that older stuff), while lacking all the other stuff also incorporated in the years since, that he takes as a given in newer comics.

My expectatives and frame of reference are not the same when I read an indie book, or an european BD, or a shojo manga, or a Silver Age Marvel comic. Ideally, I think, one should abandon even the expectatives given by the frame of something being an indie book, an european BD, a shojo manga, etc. and judge a work without preconcieved ideas, but by the principles the work establishes in and of itself.

10/21/2014 2:13 AM  

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