Sunday, November 25, 2007


When words and pictures are combined to tell a story, one medium or the other usually ends up doing most of the heavy lifting.

Personally, I prefer art where the picture plays the central role but I acknowledge that the People In Charge of Handing Out Awards These Days seem to have the opposite view. The most honored graphic novels often combine powerful words with weak drawing.

Take for example Alison Bechdel's touching book Fun Home, Time Magazine's No. 1 Book of the Year and a National Book Critic Circle Award finalist:

Bechdel can write about an "abject and shameful mien" but she sure can't draw one. You'd never guess from these facial expressions that you are looking at a sobered person confronting a shamed person. Furthermore, her commonplace composition doesn't contribute much design or style. So perhaps we are entitled to ask: do Bechdel's drawings really enhance her words, or are they just a place holder enabling the reader to fill in the gap with his or her imagination?

Another example of the emphasis on words over pictures is Art Spiegelman's pulitzer prize winning Maus-- again, a powerful story accompanied by weaker drawing.

As with Bechdel's drawings, Spiegelman's facial expressions are either simplistic or blank. His figures are often stiff and static,and nothing in the staging of this drawing adds depth or profundity to the story already being conveyed by the words.

The same is true of the widely acclaimed "masterpiece" of the graphic novel, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan. Ware correctly acknowledges, "as individual drawings [his work is] pretty bad."

Each of the pictures above tries to reduce a dysfunctional relationship between parent and child into a line drawing. To see what we are missing, look at how the same subject is handled in drawings from lowly MAD magazine. These pictures by Mort Drucker never won a prize or even merited a review, yet Drucker employs a whole collection of visual tools that are far beyond the reach of Bechdel, Spiegelman or Ware.

Note how the pictures enhance the words. This picture is drawn from an angle, looking down on the oppressed kid to make him even more diminutive; note the thick coarse line used to draw the abrasive father, the exaggerated shoulder and immense paw holding a cigar butt; and most of all, note the psychological insight in the marvelous facial expressions. This drawing reflects a lot of thought, effort and talent that are utterly lacking in the pictures above.

Here's another traumatized kid being manipulated by a parent. Once again, the expressions are perfect. Note how the parent leans forward and the kid cowers, looking back over his frail shoulder.

Here's a hilarious glowering mother hunched over the kitchen sink doing chores that her disrespectful daughter dismisses with a wave of her hand.

More body language: clasped hands, weary head in hand and raised eyebrows.

One last example: this picture shows how the angry mother has intimidated both the son and the father. They have furrowed brows and heads shaped and tilted to convey their weakness, as the mother's head and finger thrust forward into the picture.

When you compare these two sets of pictures, they exhibit dramatically different talents pursuing dramatically different goals. All of these creators claim to be "artists," but Bechdel, Spiegelman and Ware practice psychology using words, while Drucker practices it using pictures.
It is hard to say whether one medium is more insightful than the other, but the wild disparity in their treatment by the critics reflects a fundamental prejudice in favor of words and a gross ignorance about pictures.


Jack R said...

This topic brought to mind Daniel Clowes, whom I've championed on this site in the past. He's a both great cartoonist (dare I say his use of urban environments to create mood borders on Hopperesque) and letterer. In his recent strip in the NY Times Sunday magazine Clowes has come up with a novel use of overlapping balloons and thought boxes (any readers seen this before? I haven't). It didn't come across as a gimmick but rather a stunning graphic analog of the inner conflicts and confusion experienced by the main character.

David Apatoff said...

Jack, I took a closer look at Clowes after you mentioned him originally. I like those overlapping balloons and thought boxes-- they are a clever and meaningful device.

They remind me of the author William Burroughs who wrote in disjointed fragments because he said the traditional narrative style of the novel created a false depiction of reality. When you walk down the street, you don't experience the world in the linear form presented by fiction-- you begin a sentence and you are distracted by a car horn or a dog barking and then your mind starts to wander and you think about what you want to say when you are done making your immediate point. Burroughs tried to write like that, but he didn't have the graphic devices that Clowes has to achieve the same effect.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I loved Mad Magazine for the graphics and the great stories (without realizing how good they were). My son on the other hand, was greatly influenced by "Maus." He is now in Graphic Arts and (gulp) Advertising....

Who'da guessed.


Jack R said...

Fascinating that you chose Burroughs as a comparison. His cult status extended into experimental music (his appeal probably stemmed from the very reasons you describe). Some groups would snip his readings into digital bits to use in their songs. Burroughs collaborated with several artists and even recorded with some before he died. So in a way maybe he did do something similar to Clowes.

Anonymous said...

David, wonderful entry as usual - I always make it a point to check the blog, and love to see any sort of post related to comics-art in general.

However, having said that, I must also disagree with you on a point: I do believe that - at least in Maus' case - Spiegelman is using the simplicity and incredibly basic drawing style to bring about a larger theme which is reflected in several ways in the book: Cat and Mouse. Not only in that the Jewish POVs were mice and the Nazis cats, but that the author is attempting to hunt down the true story and his father is cleverly avoiding several key factors related therein.

Now, in terms of raw illustration, you couldn't be more right - I don't care if those MAD pictures were from a cereal box, they are gorgeous and nobody can take that away from them!

But no matter how well thought-out, or even constructed they may be, they are still beautiful illustrations put to very lackluster parody. At least, in my opinion.

Now, I know some people will turn that around on me and say "but isn't Maus a beautiful story with lackluster illustrations?" Sure, but considering the workhorse that Spiegelman has been for the abstractive-side of comics - and by that I mean the various experimental things he has done with the medium: having text and image match one another in adjacent panels as opposed to the same ones; using movements in the fine arts as a way of expressing emotion in his comics(think expressionism); etc - he has brought back to life the less childish and primary aspects of comics-making.

And, while I agree that he isn't as good an illustrator as almost any of the ones you've put on your blog(did I just make your argument? =P) I do think he deserves much of the attention he gets, it's just that the idiots GIVING him that attention have no idea what they mean when they say that "his prowess with illustration is like that of Michelangelo" or whatever moronic jargon it is they use to describe the flavor of the week now.

Just my two cents. Thanks for posting, wonderful job as always!


Benjamin Hall said...


Something I never put much thought to.

I'm pretty sure the critical acclaim leans heavily toward writers because most reviewers are writers themselves so they grade what they know. Many comic reviewers barely mention the art much less describe the style or skill involved, most likely because art is not in their background.

Then you also get to dodge the arguement that Drucker may have been an amazing draftsman, but who can really say who is a better "artist".

Also the stuff that can normally afford great art, usually isn't going to be groundbreaking like Maus.

Really interesting.

Anonymous said...

I think the Drucker stuff stands alone as illustration. It is so strong and so funny on its own terms it simply doesn't need words. It doesn't even need to be in sequence. And the words and narratives that accompanied his art often prove this point. Sometimes more is not more.

The Maus stuff works in a totally different way. The job in the maus stuff is to present visual ciphers, to draw in the viewer with suggestive minimalist haiku, (rather than to present closely observed images to the viewer for their aesthetic delectation, as with Drucker, which distances/alienates). There's so little there in Spiegelman's work we struggle with it and look to the barest nuances for content clues as we attempt engagment... calling on the same constant human need for pattern recognition that has sent people reading thrown bones and tea leaves and tortoise shells.

But, ultimately, the lack of detail in the Maus art makes the reader look elsewhere for further information. So we move off the art to the text. This creates a circular visual flow between art and text that unifies them into a single unit of content.

This kind of unity of text and image *is* the core innovation of comic books.

Maybe the better illustrator a comic book artist is, the more the risk that the accompanying words become irrelevant to the enjoyment and understanding of the story.

Maybe comic books should be segmented into silents and talkies.

Anonymous said...

jack r, alex toth did overlapping balloons back in the fifties, I believe. Sorry I don't recall the specific strip.

Nick Mullins said...

I love Fun Home, but I wondered how different it would be if it were an essay instead of a graphic novel. As you say, the art doesn't add a lot to the story. So I agree. And Spiegelman isn't a great artist (I think the Shadow of No Towers is ugly), but he chose a simplistic style intentionally, as mentioned above. Too much realism would actually make the story too melodramatic. The Mort Drucker drawings are good, but they rely on caricature. They wouldn't work for a subtle story. And that's where Ware comes in. His characters' lack of emotion is part of the point of his stories. And Ware is able to convey a lot through body language and use of space. And his design sense is amazing. He doesn't think in terms of a single image, but a whole page. The elements that make a good single drawing aren't always the same elements that make for a good comic. There are plenty of people who can draw who can't make a comic readable for the life of them.

All that being said, I think you've hit upon a trend. Words and story tend to win out over drawing. Persepolis? The art is barely functional.

Anonymous said...

My way of commenting on the non-illustrative illustrators is complete indifference to their non-illustrative work.

Thomas Fluharty said...

Great post and so true SO TRUE. great draftsman and storytellers are rare.drucker told stories w/ folds and eyebrows and hands and props along w/ many other things and never forgot the importance of communicating w/ gesture. love the site truly~ tom fluharty

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Amen, brother!

I prefer Drucker over Spiegleman, too.

David Apatoff said...

Pcp, if your son has chosen graphic arts for a career, you may want to think about having him kidnapped and de-programmed.

Brad, I agree with you about the cat and mouse theme of Maus-- I think it is a very smart device, along the lines of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinocerus." I do think that it is more of a literary device than a visual device, and I am not overwhelmed with Spiegelman's visual execution. It is possible, as you say, that Spiegelman is deliberately using a basic drawing style to achieve an affect, although I would feel better about it if I'd seen any evidence that Spiegelman was capable of a range of styles to choose from. Like you, I do value the fact that Spiegelman has been a powerful "workhorse" for the legitimacy of clients. I think he has a great critical eye, even if he is not a skilled draughtsman. Anyway, thanks for writing.

Benjamin, I think you are absolutely right about the literary leanings of reviewers.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, "suggestive minimalist haiku" is probably the most sympathetic (or flattering) way I've heard to describe the drawing in Maus. However, you do still have to reconcile that with the fact that the drawing is overworked and excessive in many ways-- a lot of unnecessary (and monotonous) lines and cross hatching filling every available space. But I know what you mean.

Bob, Nick and Brian-- thanks for writing!

Anonymous said...

Some of this has to do with the modern idea that the more polished something is, the less serious it is. The word slick is generally a perjorative when it comes to art. So, the fact that the drawings are simple or primative means - in high brow circles - that it is rawer and truer than something done by a professional illustrator, and therefore has more value as ART.

It's funny. I tend to buy this argument in music. I'm an aging punk rocker, and I hated Boston and The Eagles and Journey etc. for their slickness and polish and cried the praises of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols for being raw and true and real.

Somehow, I don't feel quite the same about art. Too much polish gets you Boris, or Richie Rich, and that's no good, but too little gets you the kind of alternative comics that always bored the hell out me.

There are plenty of guys who walk the line though. Gilbert Hernandez (although you will note that he's taken more seriously that Jaime, who is a better draftsman) Dave Mazzuchelli, Munoz, Frank Miller, all who a have rawness of line - and sometimes form - that pleases those for whom 'authenticity' is more important than skill, but who also pay attention to composition, expression and visual storytelling. They are true illustrators, not writers who draw.

Anonymous said...

Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware are geniuses and should not be judged by old fashioned standards for drawing.

tim said...

I'm a cartoonist who gets together with some colleagues for beers every week, and have forwarded this post in order to dump more fuel on the fire of a running debate over the merits of "Fun Home."

I have sort of an axe to grind about graphic novels that are wildly overpraised by critics for their serious intentions but would, had they been conventional prose books, probably have disappeared without notice along with all the other undistinguished novels and memoirs released every year. I liked "Fun Home" well enough, but I agree that the painstaking research and years of work Bechtel reportedly put into the illustrations doesn't really show on the page (my own eye skimmed over the art and mostly read the text). I also think its literary allusions might've been judged too heavy-handed and pretentious if it hadn't been a comic.

I'd agree that the inexpressive faces in Maus and Jimmy Corrigan permit readers to project emotion onto the characters. There's wrenching feeling restrained behind the bloodless art in Corrigan, just as there is behind the minimalist prose of Hemingway or the polished, too-perfect surfaces of Kubrick films.

Art Spiegelman's artwork, I have to admit, is truly drab and uninspired. But perhaps as someone with an unfashionable drawing style I'm just bitter and envious.

Tim Kreider

Quinton Peeples said...

I think most have missed the point of the accolades sent in the Maus and Corrigan direction - they were given praise for attempts to expand the form. And in that area, they succeeded. They made us think about new ways to tell stories in sequential art. Either by their subject matter (Maus) or their form (Corrigan). They merited their attention. Mort Drucker, for all his talent and skill, worked well within established boundaries. "Fun Home" was a graphic memoir in an age when memoir is the rage. I liked it, but am unsure of how time will deal with it. Chris Ware's work, on the other hand, continues to delight and challenge my assumptions all the time.

David Apatoff said...

Nathan, I think your distinction makes sense. I personally do enjoy the work of the artists you identify as walking the line, precisely because they do make concessions to their medium by paying attention to the factors you mention.

Anonymous, I wouldn't have to keep insulting Ware and Spiegelman if so many people didn't keep fawning over them.

Timothy, I think you have a very charitable interpretation of Ware's contribution, but basically I agree.

David Apatoff said...

Fireboy, I think you are right, but the analysis should not stop there. Isn't it possible to expand an artistic medium and still be a good artist at the same time? Winsor McCay did it. Herriman did it. Harvey Kurtzman wasn't a great artist, but at least he had a talent for layout and staging. I just don't see that from Spiegelman or Ware. So I'd give them full props for "expanding subject matter" or "expanding form" but I still don't think much of their talent in the "art" category.

Finally, I don't think that expanding the subject matter of comics or even expanding the form of comics necessarily makes them "geniuses" (as Anonymous and so many other assert). It makes them talented, which I have said all along Ware and Speigelman are.

tim said...

An afterthought: David, although I'm a fan of Mort Drucker's cartoons from way back and remain his admirer now that I'm a grownup artist, I'd have to agree with some of your readers that his art is perhaps too cartoony to illustrate your point well in contrast to Ware and Spiegelman--his drawing is beautiful, but his characters still overact like vaudevillians. I would submit that a better example might be Dave Sim, whose 300-issue series of graphic novels "Cerebus" contains some of the subtlest, most expressive (and, when called for, the funniest) faces, gestures, and figure drawing in any contemporary comics.


chuck pyle said...

Comparing Siegelman and Ware to Drucker might be a bit unfair as I believe that their style of storytelling is different both by artistic bent, and purpose of story being told. I LOVE Drucker and grew up in worshipful awe of him for all the gifts that you mention, but it is like comparing Henry James to Ernest Hemingway in that the style of storytelling is so utterly different. Both Spiegelman and Ware, whether due to drawing abilities or taste come from a much more spartan aesthetic in story and Drucker is lushly dnense in terms of narrative detail to get the point across.

David Apatoff said...

Timothy and Chuck, I agree that you make a fair point. Drucker has a more humorous objective and he is not an exact fit. Of course, Drucker had to master the full range of classical drawing skills-- anatomy, design, perspective, facial expressions, dramatic presentation-- before deciding which ones to abandon, or distort or bend or make funny. I don't think that the other artists we're discussing (Spiegelman, Ware, etc.) ever mastered those skills, so you never know whether they don't use those skills because they are artistically irrelevant, or they don't use them because they can't.

Anonymous said...

Bechdel can draw in a more "realistic" fashion--see her drawings of photographs in her book, for example. The question is, why draw the story in a more simplistic style? To not detract from the words? To subtley, rather than overtly compliment the written word?

Anonymous said...

A bit late (I'm still moving my links from Bloglines into Vienna), but just for the record in your excellent post.
I agree with you in regards to the "minimalist" tendencies and I'd add: I strongly rejects the representation of whole peoples (be them Germans or Jewish) by means of different animal species.
In a more auto referring side, I couldn't help but to link an old illo by me about moyhers yelling to childs. It was for a newspaper article on child abuse. I added a rather gruesome detail to reinforce the metaphore. OK, I'm not Mort Drucker, you know?

Anonymous said...

I just checked and the ling went broke. Sorry. I'll try with the shorter one to my Flickr site (please, look for "Abuso")