Thursday, October 27, 2016


An art critic once remarked that when Rembrandt was young and cocky, his portrait subjects were dramatically lit from the outside, but as he got older and wiser, his subjects became lit from within.

Rembrandt self-portraits at age 23...  and at age 53
Very few things in the world actually emit their own light-- angels, fireflies, suns-- the rest of us are opaque objects, only visible because we reflect the light from those rare sources.

That hasn't stopped artists from trying to imbue opaque surfaces (such as paper or canvas) with radiance, to suggest that their subject glows from within.  In the middle ages, texts were called "illuminated" when artists used gold or silver to make them glow.  Today we can illuminate images electronically using light-emitting diodes or simply turning up the brightness on our computer monitor. This makes colors glow in a way that Rembrandt never dreamed.

Some commercial illustrators of the 20th century turned that "lit from within" feeling into a personal brand.  Haddon Sundblom was famous for creating a Santa Claus that radiated sunshine.

Another talented illustrator, less well known than Sundblom, was Pete Hawley.  He painted cute babies on greeting cards and little plastic plaques that grandmothers hung on their kitchen walls in the 1950s.

His assignments were largely simple minded, yet he did beautiful work.

Note how his colors and technique combine to give his subjects an incandescence:

Highlights from above on their hair and reflected light on their cheeks from below were ethereal pinks and turquoises.

As an aside, I love Hawley's snappy brushwork which adds contrast and vigor to the brim of her straw hat, or to the shape of his mechanic's cap.

Sundblom and Hawley didn't have the luxury of lighting their subjects electronically. Today anyone can flip a switch and give a face more lumens than Rembrandt ever did.

But a picture that literally glows is not the same as a picture that glows metaphorically.  Sundblom and Hawley used their considerable arts and artifices to simulate a feeling of radiance.  Their goal was not just to make colors brighter but to give Santa Claus a magical, radiant smile or surround a praying child in celestial light.  In the autumn of his life, Rembrandt could give his face the sadder glow of embers after the original bonfire of his youth had subsided.

Their illusion of light was achieved with a combination of skills and talent on behalf of an artistic purpose, and those don't come with an electric switch, at least not yet.

Friday, October 21, 2016


In Richard Thompson's comic strip, Cul de sac, a guinea pig escapes from a school classroom.  Once outside, the pig says:

What does he mean by that?

The famous poet Stephen Crane pointed out that we'd better be careful about wishing for freedom:
If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant --
What then?
Thompson never wrote poetry about existential dread but he was able to make the same point using humor, children and talking animals.   Crane's words wouldn't fit in a tiny word balloon, but Thompson effectively grabs our attention by juxtaposing the simple words "I'm free!" with "Help!"

Last week we discussed whether comics are a suitable medium for profound content.  As a general matter, I'd say no.  Comics are short, simple, cheap, badly reproduced and aimed at a low readership.  Most are poorly drawn.   It's difficult to make great art using a medium that chafes and strains against ambitious content.

But every once in a great while, an artist comes along who vindicates the medium by achieving greatness within its confines.  Gifted artists such as Herriman, Schulz, Watterson or Thompson, have the rare ability to simplify larger human truths into brief adventures squeezed to fit in small boxes.

Thompson's brief strip about the guinea pig makes Stephen Crane's point, but in a lighter more elegant way than Crane.  As a bonus, he makes other funny observations about human nature along the way:  

I love the evanescent loyalty of the children:

Like Herriman, Thompson drew with "secret grace and obvious clumsiness."
As St. Augustine said (and as Thompson also shows us) "the virtue of children lies not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs."

When Thompson's children grow up, they'll develop the guile to conceal their true natures.  But cartoons don't allow room to gradually strip away artifice, so great cartoonists use children to distill grown up truths to their essence.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


When R. Crumb illustrated Bible stories in comic book form, some critics complained, "the power of the text seems diminished, not enhanced or illuminated, by these images." If the pictures don't enhance the text, what's the point?

Crumb himself said, "I decided just to do a straight illustration job." For example, he portrayed God as the traditional old white guy in a toga with a long beard.  He even gives us the perfunctory starburst to symbolize the creation of heaven and earth.

I would've enjoyed seeing Crumb's demented imagination applied in earnest.  Instead, he handled the Bible "just like [the Classics Illustrated comic books from the '50s]. You know, it's no big deal." 

You might wonder why the world needs another comic book version of the Bible, a book which raises the world's most challenging and complex subjects.  After all, there are plenty of versions out there already for lazy students seeking a study guide the night before exams. Do any of these illustrations contribute anything original on the subjects of creation, mortality, sex, destiny, spirituality, love, passion, miracles, etc.?  From the Classic Comics version to the Kubert version to The Graphic Canon treatment to The Action Bible, the graphic novel format seems to dumb down, rather than enhance, the text.

As Mario Naves wrote, "An artist who trades in trivialities should know well enough not to mess with themes that are beyond the scope of his talent."

Which brings me to the new book, Garden of the Flesh, biblical stories by Gilbert Hernandez. [CAUTION: EVEN WITH MY REDACTIONS THE FOLLOWING IMAGES ARE NSFW.] 

According to the cover, "Beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing through the story of Noah's ark," this book offers "biblical tales of Original Sin."  Inside is perhaps the most barren treatment of the Bible or of sin I've ever seen.


What in the world was the artist thinking?  These awful drawings-- flat, bland and unimaginative--together with the sparse, inane dialogue suck the IQ points right out of your head.

(N.B.: I promise these are not unfair excerpts.  The entire book limps on like this, page after page.)

If these drawings had been scratched on a men's room wall I'd say, "go for it!"  I agree with the wise man who said, "Bad drawing, even bad bad drawing, almost always has character.... the vision has a weird purity you kind of have to admire, no matter what."  But bad drawing loses some of that "weird purity" and no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt as it become more pretentious.

Today we're all good post-modernists; we evaluate pictures based on the artist's success at achieving his or her individual ambitions.   But that doesn't mean we have no standards whatsoever.  A book that is essentially a Tijuana Bible at heart gets evaluated differently when it takes on the ambitions of a deluxe embossed book which presumes to address Biblical stories of original sin.  It's hard not to feel insulted by this book.

Authentic Tijuana Bibles may not get reviewed in prestigious journals but they are superior works of art, more successful at achieving their artistic ambitions. 

Many of the artists who drew Tijuana Bibles were technically unskilled but their drawings were more genuine and human and lusty than the thin, pleasureless drawings in Garden of the Flesh.  

Not only that, but their plots were more intelligent.

John Dillinger stops to aid two pretty girls who are having car trouble.