Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I love these powerful pictures by Kent Williams, one of my favorite artists working in graphic novels today. These kinds of images have their roots all the way back in the urschleim.

Williams is also a magazine illustrator, a gallery painter and an art teacher. He teaches contemporary figurative painting in Pasadena, California.

Some of his pictures are more successful than others, but Williams is one of the very few sequential artists who I think makes effective use of the technical tools and creative choices now offered by graphic novels. For example, the following panel from the graphic novel Tell Me Dark displays far more nuanced color and shading than was possible in previous generations of comic books.

As another example, Williams used a kneaded eraser to mold a figure by lifting highlights from a background of vine charcoal. This delicate technique was not possible with the printing technology for earlier comic books.

The golden age of illustration began in the late 19th century as a result of the invention of photoengraving. Prior to that time, art could only be published in a book or magazine by painstakingly tracing the original image onto a wooden block which was then carved by hand by an engraver. The artist was at the mercy of the engraver (who often co-signed the finished block) as well as the printer. Photoengraving inspired a mini-renaissance because for the first time, books and magazines faithfully captured the artist's true talent (for better or worse).

Comics have now gone through a similar renaissance. For most of their history, comics were drawn in pencil by one artist, then traced in ink by a second artist for reproduction. Often, a third artist applied color on a separate page or guide sheet as a reference tool for the printer. Now graphic novels have overcome all these limitations of the medium. Today's artists are free to work with delicate line, or subtle gradations in color and value, or mixed media.
While many writers have taken advantage of the freedom of the graphic novel, very few artists have risen to the challenge. Most sequential artists treat the graphic novel like a super sized comic book on glossy paper. Even successful painters such as Alex Ross, who use the new image quality to convey slick, photo-realistic art, don't add much artistic integrity. Their art may be dazzling but it seems thin and lacking in humanity.

Apart from Williams, there seems to be only a handful of artists-- McKean, Miller, and perhaps half a dozen others-- who are doing artwork worthy of the medium.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Bob & Bob was a flaky performance art team in the 1970s. They painted themselves yellow and silver and conducted "happenings" in rooms filled with popcorn or foam rubber. They named their happenings "Sex is Stupid" or "Forget Everything You Know." Sometimes Bob & Bob would perform songs against materialistic society:

People go to school and learn from books
Then they get degrees
Then they get a job and drive a Porsche
Bob & Bob had no apparent drawing skills. A booklet of their work describes the team's technique for drawing:

The drawings were nothing more than scribbles but the two found something harmonious there so they decided to draw together on the same sheet of paper.
They also performed comedy routines. Fortunately, Bob & Bob faded away like disco with the dawn of the 1980s. So why am I wasting your time with them? Because recently I looked at some of their drawings and was astonished to find they were truly excellent. I think these deserve a wider audience.

As part of their campaign against capitalism, Bob & Bob copied photographs from the annual reports of banks and large corporations. They drew the corporate executives and boards of directors with magic markers in a crude way. The results were absolutely devastating.

Said Bob & Bob:"These poor bankers have spent their whole lives in classrooms and offices and all they have to show for it is money and wrinkles. We wanted to turn them into art." I find these drawings more lacerating than the art of widely acclaimed social critics such as George Grosz, R. Crumb or Gerald Scarfe.

I am surprised that two goofy featherweights like Bob & Bob were able to produce something so dark and trenchant. These drawings seem close in spirit and quality to the work of Francis Bacon and Marshall Arisman.


The alchemy of art is so unpredictable, unlikely artists sometimes produce surprising results. Were these drawings intentional or just a lovely accident? I don't know, but they are another reason why (as if another were needed) the time to stop looking with fresh eyes at new artists is never.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part eight

Edward Galinski, a Polish student, scratched this portrait on the wall of cell 18, block 11, at Auschwitz.

Edward was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1940 for opposing Germany's invasion of Poland. He worked at forced labor in the camp. One day, Edward was assigned to repair buildings at the women's camp next door. There he met Mally Zimetbaum-- a beautiful, doe eyed girl imprisoned for being a Jew.

Edward was completely smitten. He started talking with Mally under the watchful eye of the guards. After several weeks of furtive exchanges, the couple found a way to pass secret notes back and forth between the two camps. Against all odds, through the barbed wire and brutal guards, love bloomed.

Edward realized that Mally would eventually be killed in the gas chambers, so he came up with a daring escape plan. On June 24, 1944, he put on a stolen SS uniform and escorted Mally through the front gates using forged paperwork and passes that Mally had obtained. Once outside the camp, they disappeared into the tall grain and headed for the Czech border.

In his book about Auschwitz, Polish author Wojciech Kielar wrote that when the escape was discovered, every prisoner in Auschwitz spoke about nothing but Edward and Mally. The young couple in love became a symbol of freedom and hope for a new generation.

Edward and Mally had twelve days together. It would have to be enough.

Mally was captured by a German patrol at the Czech border. Edward was safely in the clear, but when he saw that Mally had been captured, he returned and surrendered to be with her. Back at Auschwitz, Edward and Mally were thrown into isolation cells in the basement of block 11. There they were tortured for details of their escape and the names of any accomplices. Another prisoner in block 11, Zbigniew Kaczkowski, recalled that Edward had a secret way of checking at the end of each day to see if Mally had survived: "Every night, pressing his lips to a crack in the door, [Edward] would whistle a certain melody; he would get a reply, the same melody from Mally in a distant cell."

Edward was held in cells 18, 20 and 23. There he paced, desperate and helpless while his beloved Mally was tortured down the hall. In each cell, he drew a portrait of Mally on the wall and wrote their names together.

Edward and Mally never did betray their helpers. Their captors executed them in front of the entire camp to discourage future escapes. Edward was hung from the gallows in the male prison yard. He shouted his last words, "long live Poland," with the noose around his neck. One historical account recalled that at the moment of his death, "an anonymous voice shouted out from among the prisoners: 'Hats off!' and the entire camp, as one, removed caps in a defiant salute." Mally tried to kill herself on the gallows but was intercepted and stomped to death by SS men in front of the women prisoners.

I would like to say two things about the sad story of Edward and Mally.

The first has to do with the role of art. I find it strangely moving that human beings turn to pictures for solace in times of great distress. When the woman he loved was being tortured down the hall and there wasn't a thing he could do about it, Edward drew a picture of her face. There is no logical explanation for this. Why should lines scratched on a wall make him feel closer to Mally? Images contain powerful magic, even at the outer extremes of bearable human experience.

My second point is about-- for want of a better word-- love. Sometimes I think about what Edward and Mally were able to condense into their twelve desperate days of freedom.

Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, "the butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough." Generally I take little comfort from this because humans are different from butterflies.

But in the case of Edward and Mally one hopes that whatever they shared during those twelve days was enough to sustain them during the ordeal ahead. Years ago Richard Kennedy wrote a fairy tale called the Dark Princess, about two would be lovers, a princess and a jester. The two could never have a life together. In fact, they could not even look at each other or talk to each other. The sum total of their life together was one brief moment as they jumped off a cliff and were able to touch once before perishing in the sea below. Kennedy wrote the following about that touch:

And in that moment they touched, the sun rose a million times for them , and the Princess and the Fool could see each other and all the things of life and the world.... And that moment they touched outlasted the life of the King and Queen, and outlasted the life of the Kingdom. And that moment they touched is lasting still, and will outlast us, too.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Many comic artists draw hair in a kind of shorthand. They select from a menu of 3 or 4 basic styles they once learned, and modify the color or hairline for a little variety. Highly regarded artists such as Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were all guilty of this timesaving practice (and as for George Wunder's Terry and the Pirates-- let's not even go there).

One reason I admire Mort Drucker so deeply is that he didn't take such things for granted. In each of these pictures, he looked with fresh eyes for the best way to capture hair with line. It's hard work-- the essence of traditional drawing-- but it really pays off.

Obviously, Drucker isn't relying on any formula here. In the pictures below, Drucker has analyzed and mastered the 3 dimensional structure of each hairstyle. Once he understands it, he can rotate it on an axis in his brain just as if he was born with a CAD CAM software program.

Drucker did not just haul this approach out for wild, eccentric hair. In the following picture, notice how he captures even plain, straight hair with a master's sensitivity.

Although Drucker is justly famous among professional caricaturists who recognize the measure of his achievement, in my view he remains the single most underrated comic artist.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


My eye is always drawn to those little places in a picture where the artist takes the liberty to play with abstract design. Sometimes you'll find artists indulging themselves when they depict folds, or water. Often you find them sneaking it in when they portray hair.

In this Joe De Mers picture (which I borrowed from Leif Peng's excellent
Today's Inspiration blog) contrast De Mers' tight, disciplined treatment of the face and hands with his wild treatment of the hair.

The hair in this "realistic" picture is as abstract as any Jackson Pollock painting. It enlivens the whole picture.

Similarly, in the following wonderful illustration, Bob Peak has carefully constructed a picture with many intricate figures, but when it comes to the hair, Peak returns to the freedom of kindergarten fingerpainting.

This must have been fun to do.

Frank Frazetta is another illustrator who created realistic, highly detailed pictures but when it came to hair, he stopped worrying about the rules of anatomy or perspective or shading. He completely unleashed himself and let design have free reign.

Somehow, all of his figures seemed to be standing in small cyclones.

Frazetta's wildly flowing hair not only added important vitality but also served a major compositional purpose.

Robert Frost once wrote: "The moments of freedom, they cannot be given to you. You have to take them." Artists employed to create pictures have to satisfy many masters: art directors, clients, audiences, printers-- even the subject matter imposes its own compromises. The artist is not free to fling paint or blend colors solely to create primal beauty. Yet, working within all these constraints, the artist can usually find little moments of giddiness in the hair, or the folds, or the clouds.


Obligatory art-is-like-life sermon for those younger readers who might not have figured out this part yet: everyone operates every day under lots of constraints, but if you are good at what you do, and you care enough, you can seize back what Frost calls those "moments of freedom" and, like De Mers, Peak and Frazetta, make them meaningful to your overall picture.


Saturday, March 03, 2007


I recently finished the second volume of the Encyclopedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos by Baldaev and Valsiliev. (It was a gift from my wife-- don't ask.)

For over fifty years, Baldaev worked in the Russian prison camps where he studied and recorded the tattoos of thousands of criminals.

The Encyclopedia documents a brutal world where hardened criminals, debased by Tsarist labor camps and Stalin's gulag, lived like animals. They killed and maimed each other impassively. Walking around naked, they copulated, masturbated and excreted in plain view with no shame or regard for others. As one horrified observer wrote, "only their bodies were alive."

You might not expect art to flower under these conditions. Yet, art had more of an impact on human life in the prison camp than it does in most museums. Prisoners decorated themselves with symbols and images illustrating their crimes, their personal histories, their politics and their sexual practices. These "symbolic portraits" determined the prisoner's identity, his social status, even whether he lived or died.

The Encyclopedia recounts horrific games of chance in which the loser might be required to sacrifice fingers or a limb. In one game,

instead of an arm or a leg, the winner demanded a terrible humiliation as penalty: he commanded the barrack artist to tattoo an enormous penis on the man's face, pointing at his mouth. Minutes later, the man pressed a hot poker against his face, obliterating his tattoo.
The convict preferred to destroy his face rather than live with the artwork.

Art critics often debate the importance of representational art, but prisoners in the gulag view this question from a more urgent perspective: some prisoners tattooed portraits of Lenin or Stalin on their chests as protection against execution because they believed no firing squad would dare shoot at a picture of Lenin or Stalin. The accuracy of the picture literally became a matter of life and death; if the guard was unable to recognize Lenin or Stalin, you were more likely to die. There were not many fans of abstract art in the gulag.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn witnessed this body art and wrote in The Gulag Archipelago : "They surrendered their bronze skin to tattooing and in this way gradually satisfied their artistic, their erotic, and even their moral needs."

The Encyclopedia concludes:
The [prisoner] lives through his tattoos, he is mentally immersed in this reality, that is, he dissolves into the symbolic world of his own body. Like the Herman Hesse character who gets into the last carriage of a train and rides away-- a train that he himself drew on the wall of his prison cell.
There are lots of different ways to evaluate art, but if you want to see art that has a real impact on human life, you're more likely to find it among desperate men in the gulag than in the polite salons of Paris and Manhattan.