Friday, April 07, 2017

GOOD DRAWING IN COMICS

Last week I read a college magazine describing a class on drawing graphic novels.  The instructor advised his students, "Good drawing gets in the way of good comics." This is a position widely held by people who don't know what good drawing is.

The current disregard for good drawing in comics seems to stem from at least three unfortunate trends:

First, many people have devalued pictures because they believe the words or concept are most important.

Doonesbury was so smart, its bad drawing seemed charming.  Since that time, many cartoonists who aren't nearly as smart as Garry Trudeau have tried to claim his same license.  
It is shocking to see how literary figures with no understanding of the visual arts feel emboldened to make sweeping pronouncements about them. Sir John Betjeman, the normally erudite Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom demonstrated his ignorance when he proclaimed, "No one comes close to matching [Alan Aldridge's] influence on illustration in the 20th Century..."  (In case you're wondering who Alan Aldridge was, he was a semi-talented air brush artist / graphic designer who was temporarily trendy when his path crossed with the Beatles in the 1960s.) Literary sensation Dave Eggers gave Sir Betjeman a race for his money when Eggers clownishly announced that Chris Ware is "the most versatile and innovative artist the medium has ever known." Neither Betjeman nor Eggers appears to know anything about the medium, yet they don't hesitate to make broad, absolute claims.  And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg; I've previously written about the high literary magazines whose visual taste seems to have diminished in recent decades. 

One has to assume that these fellows would be laughed out of the literary guild if they ever made such baseless claims about writers. But when artists abandon any pretense of objective standards, they open the floodgates for any moron to make bold claims with impunity.  No wonder words seem more important than pictures to today's audiences.

Second,  some people argue that "good" drawing might interrupt the rhythm and smooth flow of  sequential art.

By using three nearly identical drawings, Jim Davis, the canny CEO of the popular Garfield corporate empire, says he avoids changes in perspective, variety in line, or anything else that might slow the reader processing a gag.  This stripped down version of the comic strip is perfectly tailored to a low energy, short-attention-span audience. . 
But "good drawings" aren't necessarily lavish or detailed, and they certainly aren't oblivious to their purpose.  A drawing that distracts and undermines its own intent is by definition not "good."

Third, many people believe that newspapers no longer provide the space for anything but simplified, dumbed down drawing in comic strips.  And it's true, comic strips no longer have room for the visual spectacle of Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates.

Still, these arguments don't justify the lackluster drawing in so much of today's web comics, graphic novels and other sequential art.  

As Exhibit A, look at what the talented cartoonist Wiley Miller, who knows how to draw and cares about quality, is able to squeeze into today's compact and simplified comic strip space:



Each panel above is infused with its own creative choices; each drawing of the Titanic is stretched in fun and different ways.  Each panel is explored from a different angle. 

 
 

 

Miller proves that an artist can still find room for observation, inspiration and creativity in today's slimmed down comic strips. 

Note that even the icebergs benefit from the variety in Miller's line (as opposed to the monotonous line that haunts so many of today's strips):

 

Nothing in Non Sequitur is drawn on autopilot. Miller isn't scared to give his readers more of a visual challenge-- and more nutritional content-- than Garfield.

As another example of what is sacrificed by the new attitudes, take a look at this delicious sequence by Joe Kubert:
 
 

There are virtually no words here, but look at how wise and informative those pictures are! Note how sensitively Kubert's seemingly rough brushstrokes tell us about the shape and nature of those tentacles reaching out to encircle that ankle:


Pay attention to the creative choices in the next blockbuster panel:  Kubert tells us about the height of the creature by imaginatively having the tentacles come down from the top of the panel rather than slither along the ground.  (And note, Kubert doesn't stoop to using a simple profile view!)  He also tells us about the depth and bulk of the creature without spelling it out in words or even showing it explicitly, just by placing those strong shadows at the top of the panel where a lesser artist wouldn't have dared to put anything. He tells us about the nature of those suckers by the way he exposes them with the deft curvature of the tentacle at the bottom of the page, showing us a sample framed against the white background. And throughout the whole drawing, Kubert's powerful brush work remains in full control of the values (lightness or darkness) of the elements of the picture.  None of this has to be mapped out in words, nor could it be conveyed as effectively in words.  Kubert depicts it in instinctively and we understand it intuitively.



These are the kinds of pleasures of sequential art that played a large role in making comics a credible art form to begin with.  Where is the web comic or graphic novel today with art that compares?  And where will the credibility of the medium be a generation from now?

Why does this matter to me?  Comics were derided for many years, but eventually earned the grudging respect of the world as a legitimate art form because "good drawing" was at the heart of the accomplishment by Herriman and McCay, by Raymond and Caniff and Foster, by Kelly and King and Drucker and Schulz and Watterson and Thompson and a hundred other artists who worked their asses off.  Sequential art would not have earned space in museums today if these previous generations of artists believed that "Good drawing gets in the way of good comics."

However, now that sequential art is in museums, adorned with Pulitzer prizes and glittering trophies, many people seem eager for a piece of that status at a discounted price. Trophies from writers who don't know or care much about pictures can't preserve the status of the art form forever.  Equity built up over time also erodes over time.

A century of "good" sequential drawing behind us proves that good drawing amplifies and empowers concepts, rather than "getting in the way of them."



14 comments:

Puneet said...

Very well argued. And some great examples. Thanks.

The Seditionist said...

Kubert just got better and better as he went on. Wonder whether running a school maybe taught him as much as he himself taught.

kev ferrara said...

That Kubert page is wonderful, so full of the mood of his style and suggestion beyond what is actually shown. Thanks for posting and discussing it.

The idea that comics have been accepted, grudgingly or not, as Art because of "good drawing" struck me as wishful. I don't think the high arbiters in the watchtowers of culture have any education or taste or interest to discern the good from the bad. But maybe I'm just not aware of the current high muckety mucks at Yale, Harvard, Moma, etc discussing drawing quality per se in comics. (Haven't heard much with respect to illustration or fine art either.) Let us not forget that Maus is the Trojan Horse in this matter.

As I see it, whatever acceptance there has been is more like the tacit acceptance of mice in the attic of a weary old couple's summer cottage. Or there is a kind of tacit acceptance of some material because of the current fashion for nonjudgemental inclusivity and postures of social Jainism. Or because the material makes very enjoyable fodder for marginally useful academic social studies of bygone eras. Or some funky stuff gets past the well-guarded gates due to boomers wanting to see their 1960s counterculture pedestaled in accordance with their donations. Or Roger Reed's thesis, that the simple fact of big money (Sotheby's, Christie's, Heritage, George Lucas, the Waltons) getting involved alone lends prestige in a milieu governed by utterly vacuous or blinkered mavens. None of which has to do with quality per se. (Interested to be proven wrong, of course.)

Richard said...

I like watching David and Kev set a trap for some passerby, some unsuspecting circle head. Nice touch on the Maus lure.

David Apatoff said...



Puneet-- Thank you. There's certainly no shortage of examples of bad work to be cited, but I try to avoid criticizing the younger generations working in comics. They are certainly easy targets, but whether they've hit the jackpot or are still struggling, they still have a shot at redemption. Trudeau and Davis on the other hand are already filthy rich and so well established there's nothing I could say to hurt them.

I would like to give a boost to Wiley Miller if I can. I'm impressed by his high personal standards. There aren't many around like him.

The Seditionist-- A very interesting question. He had a wealth of experience drawing everything under the sun, and from every possible angle. He seemed to retain the lessons he learned over a long career, and was able to summon them up effectively. It's quite possible that articulating them to young students taught him a lot.

Recently, I interviewed the artist Mort Drucker in his home. He never went to art school, but he said that when he started as an apprentice in a comics shop he quickly identified the two artists he really admired: the young Joe Kubert and the young Alex Toth. He used to stand behind Kubert to watch him work, and drank in everything he could. When their employer was done with Kubert's art, Drucker used to collect the pages he admired. Years later, near the end of his life, Kubert was told that story and tears welled up in his eyes. He said, "I had no idea that Mort Drucker was watching me, and that a talent like Mort thought so highly of my work."

Kev Ferrara-- You may be right, there could be an element of wishful thinking in my argument. I think that each of your four alternative theories for the acceptance of comic art in cultured circles has some validity.

Still, do you think that comics ever would've found the type of audience they have today if they started out as the lame, simply drawn, repetitive work that dominates the comic pages? Or (to Roger Reed's point) that big money would've been lured to the field if early comic artists drew like Kate Beaton? I assume that big, realistic, beautifully drawn pages by Alex Raymond and Hal Foster were close enough to what wealthy collectors were already buying at Sotheby's so it wasn't much of a stretch for them. Picasso was said to be a regular fan of Krazy Kat. How long do you think he would have stayed interested in Garfield?

I haven't forgotten that the poorly drawn Maus was the first to breach the Pulitzer prize wall. Proof that the people handing out society's trophies care more about words than they do about images.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- Years ago when I started this blog and I wrote that artists such as Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman were overrated, I used to receive bushel baskets full of death threats from enraged fans. Now I don't even get a murmur. That must be because I convinced everybody, right?

kev ferrara said...

David,

My view is, as with the inertia of prevailing dogma in the sciences, the idea of objective quality among Art Academics will revive one funeral at a time. With the actual living culture and the production of quality illustrative products, I fear with every death we get further from the light.

A cynical sequelae: When there are no more great artists or worthy art venues left, the critical miserables controlling sophisticated thought will be able to take possession of the idea of greatness for themselves, and so quality will magically become celebrated as new and fascinating and worthy of study once again.

Richard,

Ain't it so that every opinion worth stating is a flag planted in the middle of an argument?

Anonymous said...

As usual, David and Kev make great points...much smarter than I. However, when talking about Maus, I always thought the reason he got so much attention was the actual subject matter (and the device he used to portray it). Am I wrong, you think?

Kubert was a god. For sooooo long.

Ken Meyer Jr.

Tom said...

Maybe what we have today are rationalization for our drawing, David? How many people want to do what Joe Kubert did. This is one of my recent YouTube recommendations...


https://youtu.be/hRHdiiR70Cw

I don't think what you are describing is limited to the cartoons alone, it seems to permeate a lot of our aesthetic pursuits today.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- My native optimism keeps me from agreeing with you, but I'm hard pressed to come up with any empirical data just now to support my view. This generation could use a few more Kuberts; in my opinion that drawing with the tentacles makes most of what is being done in graphic novels today look pathetic by comparison.

Anonymous / Ken Myer Jr.-- Yes, I agree the subject matter is definitely what carried Maus to a Pulitzer. The question becomes: what is to be gained from putting that text in a comic book format? Do Art Spiegelman's pictures advance the content, or do they merely make the content more accessible to a generation of non-readers? The incongruity of the comic book mice and the tragic content certainly made for an anomalous project. But ultimately I think Kev is onto something-- the people who influence "sophisticated thought" and hand out Pulitzers these days have very little understanding of visual accomplishment.

Tom-- What a sincere, humble, informative video-- so free of the pretentious bullshit and esoteric vocabulary of fine artists these days. Here is a talented artist who genuinely wants to pass along useful information. Thanks for sharing.

Richard said...

> Years ago when I started this blog and I wrote that artists such as Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman were overrated, I used to receive bushel baskets full of death threats from enraged fans. Now I don't even get a murmur. That must be because I convinced everybody, right?

Turns out that the death of traditional Art media has been the best thing that could have happened for traditional Art.

The forever-rebels moved on or became reactionary to stay outsider, and the leftovers are as simple children. They just like drawings and paintings.

It appears that if you speed up the consumption cycles for novelty enough, novelty grows stale, and only content remains novel.

You might have sped up the collapse by just letting them win in the first place. They're busy eating their children and dying if old age.

Kitty Trundle said...

’It is shocking to see how literary figures with no understanding of the visual arts feel emboldened to make sweeping pronouncements about them.’

Yes, but people with no background-in/understanding-of the professional dictates and demands of professional comic book illustration have done so on this blog many times time. It’s the same thing; same diabetes, just from a different brand of cheesecake. Like Eggers and whomever ‘Alpha’ [sjw proponent of Ware] was.

Which segues to a problem in many of the discussions here, and their subsequent discussions/debates: failure to recognise that comics and cartooning are separate disciplines, and have been for decades. Yes, they have the same distant ancestor, but so does the Miniature Pug dog and the Alaskan wolf. many anatomical elements remain the same but they are separate now; ‘Canis Lupus’ is not ‘Canis familiaris’, and hasn’t been for some time. Their genetic imperatives and all that they must do to succeed are disparate. The demands upon them are practically inverse.

As with Comics and Cartoons: one is BroadCity, the other is Boardwalk Empire. The fact that they are both created via cameras filming performers from a script means nothing; they are incepted from different needs and intended results, not to mention audiences/demographics.

Before using non-comics like Ware’s ‘work’ (which is not comics but narcissistic declaration/presentation-of-self via cartooning like the vapid semi-drawn memoirs of Bechdel), then depicting Garfield, then depicting the proper comics work of Kubert, one has to draw the destinction between ‘Crazy Ex Girlfriend’ and ‘Carmen’ [the Opera]. Otherwise in a way you’re doing what Eggers did.

But it’s easy to match apples with apples and oranges with oranges, re comics and the point of your entry here: ‘Johnny the Homocidal Manic’, a.k.a. the vomitous non-work of Jhonen Vasquez. TERRIBLE artist, emperor-with-no-clothes of so-called ‘social-satire’, but brilliant entrepreneur, and the Koons of Comics. Though Bechdel is pretty much the Tracy Emin of comics via non-comics masquerading as comics.

btw: big shout-out to Kev, his work ethic and talent. Standing ovation.

Kitty Trundle said...

Without denying the 3 reasons for bad drawing listed by our blogger-host, I’d posit that other reasons exist, and are more influential in the demise of drawing-standards within comics. Comics per se, vs. cartooning, which as I stated above, are Arctic Wolves as opposed to Pug Dogs, apples as opposed to oranges.

#1: ‘identity politics’, oft referred to by hardline 2nd wave feminists (whom loathe deconstructionist-post-modernist feminism) as the ‘Oppression Olympics’, or ‘Victimhood Lottery’, where nobody need prove a point if they can claim the appropriate ‘Hetero Whitey fucked me over’ credentials. e.g., ‘feelings over facts’. if you FEEL victimised, you ‘are’ victimised. If you have been winked at by someone of a gender you don’t wish to sleep with, then you’re free to equate that to a true sexual assault victim’s tragedy, despite the fact that the true equivalency is akin to the differential between your mommy refusing to give you your allowance for not doing the dishes and a single mother being thrown out on the street, WITH HER KIDS, due to one failed mortgage payment after being duped into the ‘toxic mortgage deals’ which led to the 2008 GFC.

‘identity politics’ say these are equivalent of each other, and you are a neo-sexist pro colonisation-philosophy-mindset-fuck-stick if you disagree.

This further reply must be in several parts, after I adhere to the ‘4,096 characters’ limit of posting here.

Kind of like people whom derided Basquiat for his lack of talent/vision/skill being silenced by ad hominem garbage ala ‘racism/classism’.

‘identity politics’ say that a white male with a beard can [later] enter the trans-life and then lecture and even REMONSTRATE an African Feminist on being a woman, and accuse her of suffering inculcated racism, because the white previously-male person CHOOSES to ‘identify’ as a non anglo woman. Sadly, ‘this happened’.

Yeah, right. Tell that to my african american step-family. Or Denys Cowan (an illustrator in comics and more, lover of Fuchs, whom David should should compose a blog entry about; I'm a massive fan of Fuchs as well). See how far you get.

more below, after I adhere to the ‘4,096 characters’ limit of posting here.

Kitty Trundle said...

Which leads to ‘intersectionality’ politics, an offshoot of identity politics. Google it, so I need not type as much, as I’m partially-disabled and typing is difficult. But intersectionality’ politics has a great deal to do with ‘decent drawing’ versus ‘I’m feeling pain so you cannot critique me fairly, lest you be accused of being a ‘whore to the privileged classes/ethnotypes/etc.’ therefore shuts down conversation about illustration’s professional requirements, or in current parlance, is anti-platformed’, as is the case with political speakers, hard-core Feminists whom suffered for standing against Margaret Thatcher, anthropologists, and even stand-up comedians, on college/university campuses, being ‘anti-platformed’/silenced. Though this happened in ‘art’ first.

This happened in art/illustration FIRST. Which bled into ‘the personal is the political’. Then we had - at least in art/illustration, particularly in comics - a feedback loop. The ‘art’ of Yoko Ono and Warhol was touted due to their backgrounds, not ability/skill, this affected the social-political topography, this added fuel to the fires of proto-intersectionality’ politics/‘identity politics’. They then co-opted each other. Now we have Bechdel and Ware as pseudo-wunderkinds… (Bechdel, please note I put your name AHEAD of Ware’s, put the female’s name ahead of male’s. )

Need proof? How many reading this blog are willing to say (or admit, or argue in a non intersectionality’ politics/‘identity’ politics manner) that Bechdel has no appreciable illustrator’s skill? Compared to Helen Beatrix Potter? Even though her entire repertoire is less-skilled than Ware’s? And she suffered less ‘identity politics’ struggles than Beatrix Potter? And admit why?

Because it’s not ‘currently convenient’.

Neither is aspiring to evolve as an illustrator, or help evolve Illustration, versus riding the coat-tails of a trend the way Andy Dick rode asses, and drug-busts, to get free publicity and guest spots on Comedy Central Roasts when his comedy act $$ and sit com residuals dried up. Kind of like the ‘artist who cannot paint or draw, whom resorts to dragging the dead head of a pig chained to his ankle to get media attention’ in Australia. Andy Dick, Bechdel and Ware make a tasty triumvirate. Especially considering the instance where Ware ‘dried up’ and had to rip-off one of Eisner’s best works. More on that one later.

No apologies, here.


Thanks for a great blog, Dave.

And I hope Alpha is still reading. ;)