Monday, July 04, 2016

THE ENORMOUS ADVANTAGES OF FORM

The pictures in comic strips today have become less ambitious and imaginative.

Prince Valiant, 1942

The strips which first established the greatness of the medium had a strong visual character.  Today the drawings have become simpler and more basic, even as the words have become more adult and sophisticated.


You'll find no images in comic strips today like the grand images from Hal Foster's Prince Valiant:


You'll find no powerful chiaroscuro drawings such as these from Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates:



You see no displays of visual imagination such as this from Gasoline Alley:


or this from Lyonel Feininger's Wee Willie Winkie:


Feininger imagines the black smoke from the locomotive smokestack as "giants" while the steam from the cylinders becomes white rabbits running alongside the train:



George Herriman's visual layouts were crucial to his poetic content:

 

 The words in Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon were pretty silly, but Raymond's drawings were quite eloquent.   Note his strong brush work describing Dr. Zarkov's back:


Raymond created huge fanciful worlds with his brush:  


Such worlds are gone from comic strips, having migrated to movie screens.


Why have so many strips today settled for a low grade functionality?

 

People have offered many explanations: smaller size, changed economics, different priorities.  I'd like to suggest another explanation: drawings have become dumber because comic strip audiences are less appreciative of the importance of form.  The modern appetite for comic strips has shifted from form to content; rudimentary drawings in simplistic, repetitive compositions don't slow the intake of a joke.

Whatever the reason, there's an awful lot of mediocre drawing in popular strips today. 
 

In this example, the woman's rolls of fat make no sense, and the folds on her shirt work against the humor of the drawing.  Those spasmodic motion lines surrounding both the woman and Opus suggest movement in all directions simultaneously.  Opus is running on a floor substantially higher than the one on which the woman stands.  I don't mind the ugly colors since the artist is going for a grotesque effect,  but here the light source and purple shading are as aimless as the line work.

There's no law that pictures must be internally consistent--  George Herriman made an art of inconsistency-- but the sloppiness of so much contemporary drawing wastes a lot of opportunities.  Spontaneity is a virtue only as long as artists are able to distinguish it from carelessness.

Words can be eloquent but pictures have an eloquence all their own.  If we lose sight of the enormous advantages of form -- the extraordinary range of qualities found in omission and selection, in visual design, imagination and grace-- we will never be able to recapture them with all the advantages of content.

28 comments:

Li-An said...

I suppose most of strip artists - US but some Europeans too - are better humorist than artist. The exact opposite of Raymond :-)

MORAN said...

You left out Garfield. Art-wise there's no comparison between the old strips and the new. It's totally different today. I still read a few strips but I don't bother with the pictures.

Jan said...

"Why aren't comic strips graphic novels?"

xopxe said...

An honest question, how much time took the first prince valiant plate to be drawn?

Donald Pittenger said...

I think one reason why "If we lose sight of the enormous advantages of form -- the extraordinary range of qualities found in omission and selection, in visual design, imagination and grace-- we will never be able to recapture them with all the advantages of content" is that the battle (if not, perhaps, the war) was lost decades ago. A generation or two of American comics readers have grown up viewing the same sorts of shrunken, simplified, gag-oriented panels for years, and if they don't indulge in comic books and graphic novels, that's pretty much their point of reference, the gestalt of the comics-following experience.

How did this happen?

Pretty much through the late 1940s, Hearst papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had full-page Prince Valiants in the Sunday comics sections. Other comics might get half or maybe two thirds unless they were topper strips. Their competition...? Not radio; some strips such as Superman and Terry & the Pirates had their own 15-minute daily radio serials. Movies? Apparently not, because both movies and comic strips thrived during the 1930s and 40s.

I have to blame television. Instead of walking or being driven to a movie theater and paying 50 cents to see Roy Rogers or Randolph Scott tame the wild west, all a kid had to do to view some drama and action was to walk across the living room and twist the channel selector dial. So by the end of the 1950s, adventure strips were beginning to die off, leaving the comics pages to humor.

It was serial strips in the dailies and ditto in the color Sunday papers that held audience interest and helped newspapers gain or maintain circulation. Basically, sports sections and comic strips were important, reliable attractions for readership. And they were rewarded (those full-page Prince Valiants are an instance). But humor strips lacked as strong a readership hook as plot continuity, so became more of a casual part of newspaper reading. Pulling in fewer sets of committed eyeballs and not requiring elaborate drawing, it became an easy step for publishers to reduce the comics' share of the editorial material hole. Hence, today's strips that seem to be as much caption as "art."

Plus, over the past 20 years the rise of the internet and fall-off of newspaper advertising revenue has drastically reduced page-count and comics space in many papers thanks to lost readership.

The old days of well-illustrated comic strips are almost certainly never to return. Only graphic novels and comic books, perhaps on-line versions too, are the most likely source for a renaissance. But their pages are so small, nothing the size of the old, 8-column broadsheet newspapers of the 30s and 40s. And their sales need to be large enough to economically support the likes of future Fosters and Raymonds.

A longshot prospect, as best I can guess.

Jack F said...

I do love Bloom County, mainly for the writing. You're right about Breathed's artwork here, although I appreciate the ambition he shows when he puts his mind to it. For example this picture: https://scontent-sjc2-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/59757_547396605291097_1615104451_n.jpg?oh=7d82d8a7df322480f3e30996b8f79f50&oe=57FB75D5. The papery rolls of flesh on the penguin opposite Opus actually wrap around the forms they are describing. Her hands are well drawn too. While Berke doesn't compare to the greats of the Golden Age, he is definitely not the worst artist out there right now!

David Apatoff said...

Li-Ann-- I suspect you're right, and I suspect that it is easier to squeeze jokes (or jokoids) into the new format than it is to conduct continuing dramatic stories. Still, there have been many humorists who were excellent cartoonists.

MORAN-- I often find myself reading the words and skipping the pictures as well. I think the pictures are designed for that.

Jan-- Can you expand on that? Do you mean, why don't comic strips have the variety and the distinctive styles of graphic novels? Or, why don't comic strips abandon newspapers and seek the freedom of graphic novels?

David Apatoff said...


xopxe-- That particular Sunday episode of Prince Valiant had six large panels. Each one was complex but the panel I reproduced was the most time consuming. It's hard to guess how much of Foster's work week was spent on the one panel I reproduced, but it's clear that Foster threw his heart and soul into it. Makes a difference, doesn't it?

Donald Pittenger-- Thanks for that helpful history. I generally agree with all of your points. But when you say, "The old days of well-illustrated comic strips are almost certainly never to return," let me offer a little resistance: even after the economic and technological trends you describe took effect, there were at least two comic strips that I think were beautifully drawn: Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes and Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. Despite the tiny images and modern constraints I think both were worthy of the great tradition of comic strips.

Jack F-- I agree with you that Breathed "is definitely not the worst artist out there right now." But I thought it would not be fair to compare the cream of the crop of historical strips with today's least popular, least significant strips. I wanted to compare apples with apples so I tried to pick popular, highly regarded strips such as Doonesbury and Bloom County. My comparison would have been worthless if I didn't at least try to achieve a level playing field.

Li-An said...

@David - (my nickname is Li-AN (I'm a guy :-)): you are right. Watterson or Richard Thompson are good examples of fabulous artist and great humour strips creator (Franquin in Belgium was a genius). But the format gives opportunities to not very good artists too make people laugh.
It seems that the public does not gives a shit about drawing in humurous stories. In France, there was a tradition (I know it existed in the USA too) of jokes in one image with very bad talent working in it (they were not funny at all and the art was awful). Blutch created a character named Blotch inspired by such artist: http://bibeim.tumblr.com/post/10030364959/spicywings-blotch-by-blutch

Pablo Gerbasi said...

i think david you are looking for stuff in the wrong places. this level of draftmanship is not in the paper strips anymore, because youngish (under 50 probably) don`t give a crap about newspapers anymore.

not saying artist the level of Hal Foster come regularly in other mediums, nowadays ost artist are either self taugh or work in fields where realism is not very needed.

but is not like shitty newspaper strips are a good example of modern day cartoonist.

Paul Sullivan said...

Donald—You are right on all points. I lived through the Golden Age of both news paper comics and magazine illustration. Television killed them both and they will not be resurrected. However, we can enjoy the incredible work and talent of the era.

Kristina said...

Bill Watterson complained about newspapers' restrictions on form back in 1990, I can't imagine how much worse it's gotten. (Cartoonists have to come up with a Sunday strip that can work in several different formats and several optional panels, I can't imagine Krazy Kat coming up with such brilliant design week after week with those kind of restrictions.)

I think you should take a look at online comics, though, I think that's where the good design has gone. Sure, there are comics like XKCD, but there are a lot of comics with beautiful artwork, too: Romantically Apocalyptic, Gone with the Blastwave, Depression Comix, Emily Carroll's work, The Din, etc.

xopxe said...

Watterson was an expert parodying "illustration style", with the epic Calvin's dreams. I'm pretty sure today's kid fantasies aren't filled in with Ben-Day dots, tough.

Oh, and now that xkcd was mentioned, it also has "sweat and blood" graphic work, like https://xkcd.com/931/ , it's just... different.

Donald Pittenger said...

David, ... Yes Calvin was usually a well-drawn strip (aside from a few Sunday fantasy episodes where Watterson had a bit of trouble doing convincing-looking adults). And he indeed had to cope with real estate limitations that might have seemed unbelievable to 1930s cartoonists.

But both Watterson and Thompson retired (for different reasons), so their strips too are gone. Well done comic strips might emerge from time to time; you are correct that current limitations can be overcome. This might well depend on the long-term viability of newspapers, however.

(Footnote: In the really old days, a press syndicate usually would hold the rights to a strip and a replacement artist would be brought in if it had been a decent money maker. Makes one wonder -- or shudder -- to think what Calvin & Hobbes would be like under different hands.)

kev ferrara said...

The poetic language of form synthesized with realism is fallen and dying because it is infinitely more mentally and spiritually taxing and physically laborious to learn and use and comprehend than text or text-like languages, which consist of ready-made meaning-entities (words and visual words that just about anybody can pick up and learn to reproduce and manipulate, and quickly, to produce meaningful communications.)

Today's purveyors of text and text-like languages completely dominate the content of the world's attention. And they dominate it out of sheer massive quantity; the millions of drone workers in the communication industries daily spew endless waves of predigested words and graphics and photos and videos and news/reality/opinion shows, that simply will. not. stop. ever.

The only Art forms that can survive the endless threat of drowning in these globally choppy waters are the ones with the most money behind them, which can fund boats of marketing that can sit atop the raging sea just long enough that a bit of wind might catch in its sails to keep it from getting sucked down immediately, along with everything else, into the giant whirlpool of amnesia at the heart of the culture, which awaits just about everything produced.

This idea that TV is at fault is not quite right. The internet is equally problematic, possibly more so. Because, with the internet, even the person wanting to look at illustration or art, the odds that they would actually pay for it, rather than simply searching the net for it and getting it free and instantly, are increasingly lowering toward zero.

So the real issue is mass communication or mass information in general. True democratization of any aspect of human life has never led to anything but excruciating mass mediocrity and population-wide psychic derangement. The democratization process may begin with talented people who otherwise wouldn't get access to some medium, information, or technology finally getting a chance to show their stuff. But it always ends, seemingly, with biblical-level floods of aggressively-hyped easily-made garbage and bullshit clogging every communication portal on Earth.

(One can only hope that biotechnology, like physics or coding, never becomes truly democratized.)

The only hope I see on the horizon is that eventually, LED screens and close reading on glowing tablets will be widely acknowledged to be catastrophic for human vision and other aspects of human health. And there will be a global wave of interest in listening to text content, rather than reading it. And this will open up the visual world to being re-occupied by artists.

David Apatoff said...

Li-AN wrote: "the format gives opportunities to not very good artists to make people laugh."

I think that's right, but when was the last time you actually laughed (or even smiled) at a comic strip? most seem to range between mild amusement and mindless distraction.

"It seems that the public does not gives a shit about drawing in humorous stories." Unfortunately this seems to be true; they don't seem to care about drawing in modern art museums either.

Pablo Gerbasi wrote: "i think david you are looking for stuff in the wrong places. this level of draftmanship is not in the paper strips anymore, because youngish (under 50 probably) don`t give a crap about newspapers anymore."

Pablo, I agree that newspapers have a lot of disadvantages-- their audiences are diminished, their space is smaller, and yes, they are no longer a hospitable forum for "this level of draftsmanship." There will never be room for another Prince Valiant in newspapers. Yet, comic strips have always had huge disadvantages: from the beginning they had to deal with poor quality printing on crummy paper, a lowbrow distracted audience, art that has to share space with word balloons and that is chopped up into unsatisfyingly small daily increments. Yet, despite all those disadvantages, artists created marvels. And, as commenters have discussed, even with the new constraints Bill Watterson and Richard Thompson made it work beautifully. It took some revamping and simplification, and some innovative thinking but they did it.

Paul Sullivan-- I don't disagree. This post is titled "the advantages of form," but we'd be deluding ourselves if we didn't acknowledge that television has its own huge advantages-- movement, sound, longer segments, etc. It's not surprising that it lured away audiences, especially passive audiences who like to be spoon fed content for all of their senses.

Li-An said...

@David: well, I don't know about actual srip comics artist in the USA. Some french artist make some funny strips but they are not "specialized" in strips. Classic humour format in France/Belgium is a gag in one page - not a strip.

A friend of mine is making strips - Téhem -inspired by La Réunion island http://www.planetebd.com/bd/glenat/tiburce/soleil-zoreil/11665.html - but as I said, it's just a part of his work. And I make strips but not very funny :-)

Richard said...

It's difficult to discern well-drawn cartoons from poorly-drawn ones when they're in 1.5" x 2" boxes.

I'm a bit obsessed with Frank King's early Gasoline Alley. I try to convert other youngsters into fans whenever I get the chance, but I find they don't see what's so fantastic about his drawings at normal size. Later, if they see them blown-up on the computer screen, they get giddy about them as I had expected they should.

So there is another, albeit less exciting, theory. The rent is too damn high, the cartoons are too damn small!

Vi M said...

What a great blog!

I think one of the attractions of manga to the younger set (i.e. my kids) is that it is beautiful to look at.
Prince Valiant today would be a manga.

David Apatoff said...

Kristina-- This is my favorite kind of comment to get: lists of artists to consider whom I did not know. Thank you for the update on online comics. I've spent some time wandering through some pretty wretched material on line (and no matter how clever, I view the stick figures in XKCD to be the embodiment of my gripe; why bother to use the comic strip medium or images like that?) So it helps to get a guided tour with suggestions like yours. I can't say I was awed by the draftsmanship in The Din or Depression Comix, but I was very interested in how Emily Carroll has made such creative use of the new medium-- she really points to promising paths, as far as I'm concerned-- and I enjoyed the visual treatment of Romantically Apocalyptic. Thanks!

xopxe wrote: "I'm pretty sure today's kid fantasies aren't filled in with Ben-Day dots, though."

I agree kids require some visual imagination to transform pink dots into human flesh. But it's funny, when you fill in all the blanks for them-- when the dots are smoothed into 260 dpi flesh tones, when kids don't have to imagine the punch thrown because the image is animated, when they don't have to imagine the roar of a rocketship because the image has a soundtrack-- it doesn't necessarily make the art any better.

Donald Pittenger-- Yes, Calvin & Hobbes and Cul de Sac are both gone, but they both managed to squeeze a lot of excellent art and imagination into the current tiny format. So at least we know that, with the right talent, it can be done. As for "what Calvin & Hobbes would be like under different hands," what an interesting (and dreadful) thought experiment. The mind reels.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "the real issue is mass communication or mass information in general."

It seems that the logical extension of your point is that the problem begins not with the internet or even television, but with writing. At one time, images were the universal demotic language because 99% of the population was illiterate. Literacy was largely an aristocrat's game as long as books were all lettered by hand (and thus far too expensive for peasants). Once Guttenberg invented the printing press and made books accessible to the masses, it gave the public an incentive to learn to read "ready-made meaning-entities (words and visual words that just about anybody can pick up and learn to reproduce and manipulate, and quickly, to produce meaningful communications.)" It has been over 500 years but it seems that the progress of writing (or really a more linear, sequential, focused mode of communication) has been inexorable. Sometimes it pauses for a century or so, and sometimes it advances quickly (as when we learned to convey words through sound recordings as well as written text) but in the competition for the most user friendly, efficient medium of communication, the complexity of pictures seems to be losing to the more effortless, less distracting medium of words.

Li-An-- Thanks for sharing that link, and I am looking up your books.

Richard-- I agree that Frank King did some wonderful pieces early in Gasoline Alley, although younger audiences may be confused because for many years toward the end the strip that went out over his signature was pretty lame. I agree that the rent is too damn high, but as noted above, some artists still managed to do great work in this medium, even in 1.5" x 2" boxes.
.

kev ferrara said...

It seems that the logical extension of your point is that the problem begins not with the internet or even television, but with writing.

What? No. I don't see the necessary logical connection there.

We communicate for only a few reasons: to share education, to transact business, for entertainment, and to commune. Humans probably began by communicating physically and through sounds and gestures. But at some point communicating through marks was workshopped, and we began quest that with whatever primitive graphics we could manage. Eventually, these early glyph languages diverged into four distinct categories or mediums (each with their own function/purview), which we might list as: writing, information graphics, symbolic decorations, and Art.

Sometimes writing is the better medium for the communication task, sometimes images are, and so on. Since writing and images speak in qualitatively different languages about qualitatively different aspects of existence, the differing mediums aren't naturally in competition with each other.

It is only with the creation of mass reproduction that costs and marketshare start to matter, then the race to the bottom begins; and cheapness, in many senses of the word, as the operating principle replaces any ethical obligation to be judiciously useful. The matter of cost efficiency not only elects words, photos and ready-made graphic elements as the prime mediums of mass communication, but corrupts them simultaneously. The result is linguistic poverty, mass indulgence in distracting sensationalism and miseducation through academicism and a neverending stream of unchecked epistemic elisions.

in the competition for the most user friendly, efficient medium of communication, the complexity of pictures seems to be losing to the more effortless, less distracting medium of words.

"User-friendly efficiency" is exactly the problem. Moreso because it is easily mistaken for a solution.

Eddie Catone said...

One way of seeing it is that these early comic strip artists were likely influenced by classical "golden age" book illustration on which they were probably brought up with. Some of those Prince Valiant plates are basically book illustrations with the addition of speech bubbles.

Sean Farrell said...

The skill and dexterity of the drawing is certainly part of the humor and authenticity in the older pieces.

Comparing the Hal Foster with some of the better graphic novels or collector comics of today could be interesting too. The continuity of the Hal Foster, with forms carved out by the skills of a single human hand and possibly a simple tool or two makes one wonder if something isn't lost in the pre-authored conveniences of cut and paste options, photoshop brushes, 3-D figures and perfectly mechanical straight lines, digital color, inking, etc.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- As often happens, you seem to have more confidence in the ability of logic and reason to categorize what I view as a vast, unruly, sprawling bundle of experience. You've made a laudable list of "reasons why we communicate," and you've made a good faith effort at dividing glyph languages into four different categories, but I think you aim impossibly high when you try to explain how writing and images "aren't naturally in competition with each other." I agree that at the extremes, some messages are often better suited for visual treatment and others are often better suited for verbal treatment. But I think the vast majority of experience can be conveyed by words or pictures-- "qualitatively different" to be sure, but whether words or pictures turn out to be "better" or "worse" for a subject is most often determined by the talents of the writer or artist, not by the topic.

I think you make a good point about "linguistic poverty" affecting words, photos and ready-made graphic elements as the prime mediums of mass communication. I would argue that the rise of information (as opposed to knowledge) also plays a major role in the process you describe. The information technologies that have transformed our culture have surely altered our appetite for in depth reflection.

In an era where the "best" medium for a subject often means the most efficient, comprehensible medium, I think words (and to a lesser degree, simplified diagram type drawings so popular today) gobble up a lot of the territory once enjoyed by complex and profound drawings. I do think the printing press which made writing an accessible tool for the masses was a major step in that direction. It starts with the basic elements such as typography: printing required extreme standardization and simplicity of the graphic forms of letters. All the flourishes and endless variations of handwritten script, all the rich ambiguities and emphases, had to be expunged in favor of the interoperability required for the printing press. It expanded from there to affect form and content. And I believe it is difficult for the kind of art that we enjoy discussing here to compete with words, or with the kind of obtundent art suitable for these informational purposes.

Eddie Cantone-- I think you're right. And I'd go a step further to say that classical "golden age" book illustrations were influenced by the "fine" arts of the preceding century.

Sean Farrell wrote: "The continuity of the Hal Foster, with forms carved out by the skills of a single human hand and possibly a simple tool or two makes one wonder if something isn't lost…"

Definitely. Much has been gained, but much has been lost. One of the objectives of this blog is to think about the trade offs.

kev ferrara said...

David,

I agree that the printing press was a crucial factor in the efficiency-mediated devolution of content-scope I am describing, just not writing per se.

But I think the vast majority of experience can be conveyed by words or pictures-- "qualitatively different" to be sure, but whether words or pictures turn out to be "better" or "worse" for a subject is most often determined by the talents of the writer or artist, not by the topic.

I think the point you are missing here, David, is that the issue of "qualities" is key. Each medium produces different, unique sensations, when effective. In order to express any particular artistic notion with the utmost force, clarity and poetry, one must do justice to the inherent qualities of the particular inchoate inner creative roil, its unique, necessary sensual aspects. And in appreciating these qualities, the project will naturally beg one medium’s effect-sensations over another. This is a crucial aesthetic point; the languages of art and literature are sensually different. And since each medium utterly circumscribes the sensuality of its expressions it also utterly circumscribes its content.

So the issue isn’t about a creator choosing his medium. Rather, the medium has chosen its artist, and the idea comes to the artist through the terms of the medium and its particular sensual properties. As Dean Cornwell put it, “if a subject can be described in words, it is not a fit subject for a painting.” Vice versa is surely also true. A writer cannot write in the effects of art, cannot type a manuscript in pattern, value, line, luminosity, direction, location, texture, nor sweep. (etc.) And some thoughts, many thoughts in fact, can only be expressed in their specificity using just those graphic instruments and no others. Words literally do not, and figuratively need not apply.

Mirroring that point, distinctively literary thoughts or effects have no reality in art. For instance, the fact that Moon and June, or Cattle and Rattle rhyme has no substance in the visual realm. Or the idea that 1,243 tickets sold is different than 1,255. Nor that a dresser is actually made of popler rather than merely sporting a popler veneer. Nor can it ever matter if a phonecall came at 3 or 5 am. Or that it was Nancy who took the cake away from the table and not Anna. Etc.

All to say, it is a complete mistake to presume only efficiency of communication matters, given the above reality. Sensual appropriateness and sufficiency both matter, and they are generally the first casualties in the attempt to be efficient in communication.

I think you aim impossibly high when you try to explain how writing and images "aren't naturally in competition with each other."

Now that you’ve read the above explanation about why some expressions would be more suitable for one medium over another, may I assume it no longer seems such an “impossibly high” aim to attempt to do so? ;)

Laurence John said...

Kev "Rather, the medium has chosen its artist, and the idea comes to the artist through the terms of the medium and its particular sensual properties."

I'm in agreement with Kev here David. Oscar Wilde said "(the real artist) does not conceive an idea and then say to himself 'i will put my idea into a complex metre of fourteen lines', but realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete"

you can't 'write' an Edward Hopper painting any more than you can 'paint' an Ernest Hemingway short story, even though the two may share similar subject matter.

Robin Cave said...

Hi David,

I thought you might like some of these great Norman Lindsay scans.

http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com.au/2016/08/norman-lindsay.html

Sorry for putting it here but I couldn't find an email link.

Regards

-----------> ROBin