Sunday, February 25, 2007


I've often made fun of today's fashionable comic artists who can't draw. You'll find them in lofty venues like the New York Times or art museums, worshipped by intellectuals who have persuaded themselves that traditional artistic standards are not relevant to the "new" art forms.

Awful drawing by Gary Panter reprinted by the Smithsonian Institution

Terrible drawing by Frank Stack also reprinted by the Smithsonian Institution
We are told for example that we can't judge the new "sophisticated and literate" brand of comic art without taking into consideration its words, or its politics, or its sadness, or some other redeeming external feature. Artists of the modern graphic novel, we are told, should not be measured by the standards applied to previous generations of artists (standards such as design, composition or linework). Instead, their pictures are to be read "like music notes on paper. They're just marks, unless you understand music, can read them, and then it becomes music... inside your brain."

My own view is that the emperor has no clothes. However, any critic taking such a position had better check in the mirror to make sure his own clothing is zipped up before venturing out in public.

Art is the great untidy thing, and I confess that I too am fond of artists with weak artistic ability just because I like their storytelling, or their style, or their spirit, or-- sometimes-- their weirdness.

One artist I like is Wally Wood, who worked for MAD Magazine and countless other publications.

Wood was no great draftsman. His figures were stiff and often formulaic. He did a lot of sloppy work. He never quite seemed to master perspective or foreshortening. (Note this cool spaceman with his head growing out of his shoulder:)

Despite his flaws, and his abundance of mediocre work, I really enjoy Wood's art. He was a seminal figure in popular culture, someone who made important contributions to the imagery of science fiction and satire. His subversive imagination worked well with Harvey Kurtzman's to challenge the "creeping meatballism" of 1950s and 1960s culture.

Note the beatnik in the background of one of Wood's trademark weird illustrations from MAD:

Another frequently mediocre artist I like is Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit and the founding father of the graphic novel. Eisner's meager drawing ability was barely adequate to convey his talent. He had no great aptitude for design or composition, but he was a creative story teller with a strong visual sense. He wisely turned to a series of ghost artists (including Wally Wood) to help him.

Eisner's art was just competent enough to portray the cinematic angle shots and shadows for which he was justly famous.

Eisner's Spirit was smart, funny and a joy to read.

There are other artists whose style, personality, wit or story line compensate for their artistic weaknesses. Some that come readily to mind are Lynda Barry, Harvey Kurtzman, Scott Adams and Garret Gaston.

Is it fair for me to criticize some current artists (such as Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter and Frank Stack) for their mediocre drawing while forgiving other artists (such as Wood and Eisner) for their own lack of talent? What's the difference between the art I like and the art I don't?

First, I find it is much easier to accept mediocre art when it is unpretentious. Artists such as Wood and Eisner toiled for decades pouring creativity onto cheap pulp paper. They were under appreciated and underpaid. By contrast, their modern counterparts found early fame and are lauded in deluxe coffee table books from the Smithsonian Institution filled with gushing self-congratulatory prose about how the new generation has elevated the medium:
When Raw finally came to an end and Spiegelman collected his pulitzer prize for Maus, few would deny that, in the right hands, the once lowly comic book rivaled film and the novel as a medium for sophisticated and literate narrative expression. On New York's Upper West Side, comics were now "hip" after all.
As far as I'm concerned, unwarranted arrogance strips mediocre art of its charm.

Second, I am not impressed with the "hip" sophistication that supposedly redeems the current art. I am told that the new generation of graphic novelists deals with more mature and adult themes like the bleakness of modern life. To me, this is like saying that Wally Wood's art was more "adult" during the phase when he drew softcore porn for a living. Wood's "mature" subject did not redeem his art. Quite the contrary, Wood's pornography, like Chris Ware's adolescent nihilism, is actually less mature than MAD magazine. Tragedy is a fitting subject for adult art but mewling, bleating, puking and whining do not redeem mediocrity in art, they underscore it.

Wood was a pioneer in an infant medium. He fought battles for artistic freedom and artists rights that his successors never had to fight. Despite his prolific output, he was never compensated as well as his successors have been. He was not unaware of bleakness in life; he had health problems and struggled with the bottle and depression before he killed himself. But Wood was never narcissistic enough to fill graphic novels with his personal demons.

Wood's generation felt obligated to try to get things right artistically, and Wood fell short of the highest standards of draftsmanship. However, he left a great legacy, a generation of wonderful images and stories of children, rocketships, and alien creatures. He had a great influence.  A mediocre artist could do a lot worse.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


For more than a century, the New York Times kept its nose in the air and refused to carry comic strips the way other newspapers did. Odi Profanum Vulgus Et Arceo -- "I detest the common crowd, and I rebuff them."

As a result, the Times cordoned itself off from some of the best pen and ink work of the 20th century. Brilliant political cartoonists such as David Low, Pat Oliphant and Jeff MacNelly did not appear in the Times. Phenomenal comic strip artists such as Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Walt Kelly, Leonard Starr, Bill Watterson and others appeared in competitor newspapers, but never in the Times.

A few years ago, the Times relented and began running comics such as this.

I am amazed that, after resisting 100 years of great art, the Times finally reversed its position in order to carry such feeble work. They obviously still don't get it.

The Times seems to have been duped by the currently fashionable "I'm-so-smart-I don't-have-to-draw-well" genre. Many popular comic artists explain that the quality of their drawings is not important except to move the narrative forward. To me, such an art form is closer to typography than comic art. It shrinks from the potential of a combined words-and-pictures medium.

The funny thing is, many of these artists genuinely appreciate the accomplishments of their predecessors. They excuse themselves from striving for the same standards because they mistakenly believe that the content of their strips is clever or important enough to redeem poor visual execution.

They forgive themselves too easily, and so does the New York Times.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


This is an unpublished sketch by the great Frank Brangwyn.

One of the things I like best about this drawing is how Brangwyn renders in a tight, representational way when he wants to, but does not let the parlour trick of realism distract him from higher goals. I think this is a beautifully designed study.

Many artists with dazzling technical skill have had successful careers meticulously painting eyelashes and fingernails. Boris, Vargas, Duillo and Rowena are examples that come to mind. I respect their discipline but personally I find their art to be mediocre and boring. Artists such as Brangwyn, who are able to keep realism in its proper perspective, start where those artists leave off.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Last year on Valentine's Day, my enthusiasm got the better of my critical judgment and I posted one of the valentines that my sweetie and I design each year for friends (she provides the words, I do the drawing).

Since some of you didn't seem to mind last year's valentine too much, I'm posting another one this year-- a different type of drawing for a different kind of quote.

Rest assured that tomorrow I'll regain my high standards. But for now, Happy Valentine's day to all of you!

Sunday, February 11, 2007


In my youth I loved the smell of turpentine, the feel of a pen nib biting textured paper, and the sight of wet watercolor sparkling like ichor.

I think future generations will have to find something else to love.

Technology will continue to transform and redefine what we once called art. Perhaps not in this decade but certainly in this century, traditional notions of skill, talent, artistic vision and manual dexterity will be relegated to a smaller and less relevant corner of human experience. People raised on interactive holographic images will have neither the patience nor the sensitivity for the quieter virtues of a subtle drawing or a nuanced painting. People who distribute art globally with the push of a button will have little use for an object to hang in museums and galleries.

The playwright Buchner once observed that, no matter what the future holds for us, "inside us there is always a smiling little voice assuring us that tomorrow will be just like today." That voice tells us that art will always continue in the tradition of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Picasso. The tools and craft of drawing and painting seem so central to our concept of art, how could they ever become irrelevant?

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a splendid little poem about the passing of great things:

When Death was young and bleaching bones were few,
A moving hill against the risen day
The dinosaur at morning made his way,
And dropped his dung along the blazing dew;
Trees with no name that now are agate grew
Lushly beside him in the steamy clay;
He woke and hungered, rose and stalked his prey,
And slept contented, in a world he knew.
In punctual season, with the race in mind,
His consort held aside her heavy tail,
And took the seed; and heard the seed confined
Roar in her womb; and made a nest to hold
A hatched-out conqueror . . . but to no avail:
The veined and fertile eggs are long since cold.

Dinosaurs ruled for 120 million years and yet are most famous for becoming extinct. Art has existed for a mere 35,000 years, so it is probably premature to believe that our little cultural conceit is fated to endure.

Is the end of art as we know it a good thing or a bad thing? Like many of you who have chimed in on the subject of art and computers over the past few weeks, I am torn. But regardless of whether it is good or bad, it seems inevitable. And as the great military tactician Clausewitz once said, the best way to win is to "exploit the inevitable."

The Sphinx may be the world's greatest monument to the epic permanence of art. It stands in the desert as a timeless testament to a glorious epoch in human history. But over the years its face was destroyed by invading soldiers and petty religious fanatics who were apparently unnerved to be in the presence of such an object. These vandals may have lacked artistic taste or ability, but they had something better: they were alive and victorious.

That is the morality of life, the essential superiority of here and now, however shallow and witless, over the past, no matter how grand and beautiful. When it comes right down to it, Ruskin was right: "the only wealth is life."

Now back to illustration!

Friday, February 02, 2007


Drawing for Fantasia by James Algal, director of sequencing (1940)

Last week I had a good chat with Dave Bossert who is Disney's Creative Director of Animation for Special Projects. In addition to creating art with computers, Bossert works with pencil and brush. At home he is a sculptor. He talks with great fondness about other animators at Disney who work in their spare time with traditional media (including one who has an easel in his office for oil painting during his lunch break).

Bossert played a major role in animated films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Lion King and Fantasia 2000. But he is also a restoration animator who digitally restores, frame by frame, classic old Disney animated films such as Bambi.

So I thought Bossert was a good person to ask how computers had made things better and how they had made things worse. He turned out to be a cheerleader for computers:

I look at the computer as just another tool, like a neat new pencil or a really cool brush.

Things are terrific today. Animators have enormous new tools at their disposal. Digital technology helps us to make films without the inherent flaws of hand painting, such as dust, scratches and cell shadows. The clarity and consistency are much closer to the original intent of the artist.

But the art has to lead the technology. The technology shouldn't lead the art.
The thing that impressed me most about Bossert's position was that computers achieve a result closer to the original intent of the animator. As he lovingly restored Bambi, he came across numerous instances where paint had "crept" or colors had varied from what the original animators wanted, just because of the limits of the medium in an era before digital paint.

I love the personal touch in the drawing from Fantasia above, but you can tell from the reference numbers that it is being adapted for a purpose unnatural to traditional drawing. Disney used to make epic animation masterpieces using the same labor contract that the pharoahs used when building the pyramids, but even under those conditions there were limits to what the human hand could achieve.

Computers in other art forms often take us further away from the intimacy and immediacy of the individual artist. But in animation, computers seem to bring us closer to an individual artistic vision.

Animation drawn by hand is inevitably a corporate product-- requiring the infrastructure of large numbers of artists and support staff, large amounts of equipment and large amounts of capital to pay for it all. However, computers today reduce the number of steps between the individual artist and the fully realized artistic vision. New software enables individual artists to achieve results that the largest studio could not achieve animating with more traditional media.

Bossert recognizes that the potential for computers in animation is not fully realized. A self-confessed "sponge" for new information, Bossert is constantly exploring Youtube and other internet phenomena, trying out technologies such as blu-ray, and reading all he can. But animation is already one of the best possible applications for computers in art.