Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The world is divided into those who seal their comic books in mylar containers and those who do not. This division is more fundamental than differences in politics, race, religion or gender. 

At last week's San Diego Comic-Con, collectors with the foresight to preserve their comics in mint condition reaped huge economic benefits. Comic books that had been hermetically sealed, unread, in climate controlled environments sold for hundreds of times the price of battered, well read comics. Still, I'm baffled by those who moaned, "if only I had kept my comics in mint condition I could be rich now." 

I've never seen any comic book, no matter how perfect its condition, sell for enough to buy back those missed hours spent reading comics under a shady tree during our childhood. In fact, as we become older and richer, and our pleasures become more complex, that youthful form of ecstasy slips further and further away. Its distance in the rear view mirror seems to increase exponentially in proportion to the value of the car we are driving. We can't take it with us, even in that Mint 10.0 copy of Detective Comics no. 27 vacuum sealed in a lucite block on the front seat next to us. 

Still, you have to respect the fact that people collect comic books, like they collect other art, for all kinds of reasons. I took good care of my own comics because I respected their magic pictures and stories and wanted to visit them again and again. Today they are no longer in mint condition but they do have the additional glow that all things acquire from being seasoned by love over a long period of time. I was particularly interested by the numerous comics "business services" at Comic-Con. Rating and scoring experts. Insurers. Appraisers. MacroEconomic consultants.  Technical experts promising to fit your comic book "inside an archival-quality interior well, which is then sealed [through a combination of compression and ultrasonic vibration] within a transparent capsule" where you can no longer see the drawings. This may make economic sense for some. For me, the best economist remains the great Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "economy does not consist in saving the coal but in using the time while it burns."

Saturday, July 18, 2009


A mediocre painter who wants to portray danger on the road ahead is likely to spell it out, portraying the ominous cliff and perhaps even highlighting it with some corny lightning bolt.

But talented artists achieve far more powerful results using more indirect and imaginative solutions to the same problem:

In the following illustration, all that Bernie Fuchs requires to create a sense of melancholy is a bend in the road and forlorn colors. Here he depicts the site where a football hero committed suicide by stepping in front of an onrushing truck. Fuchs' approach is subtler than painting a body lying in the road or an ambulance speeding away, but it is far more effective and universal.

Here is how the illustration looked when published as a double page spread in Sports Illustrated (teamwork by Fuchs and famed art director Richard Gangel).

Next, rather than paint the danger (or illuminate it with a lightning bolt), the ingenious Phil Hale understands that it is far more frightening to speculate about what waits in the darkness, just beyond the reach of the beam of light:

Below, the talented Greg Manchess takes a different approach: look at how effectively he uses fog and shadow and eerie light to cast a sinister aura on an otherwise normal road.

It's not that difficult to paint realistically; it must have been harder for Manchess to decide when to deviate from the safety of realism in order to disorient the viewer. He had to be selective in order to make us feel that the scene is taking place in an otherwise normal world where something is coming unglued. That is the point where an artist relies on judgment and imagination, leaving behind photographs and technical manuals on perspective and lighting.

Each of these artists recognized the inadequacy of a literal approach when it comes to conveying menace. Each of them used ambiguity and restraint to draw the viewer's imagination into the creative process. But each of them had the technical skill to craft just the result they wanted.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Everyone thinks Albert Einstein was such hot stuff because he shattered Isaac Newton's classical model of the universe in which all matter conforms to quantifiable laws of physics.

In his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) and other works, Newton postulated a universe that operated much like a giant mechanical clock governed by mathematical formulae for time, space, gravity and motion. For centuries Newton's explanation seemed to work just fine.

Then along came Einstein who demonstrated that no matter how accurate Newton's laws appeared on the surface, they failed to account for the behavior of matter at either the subatomic or cosmic ends of the spectrum. His special and general theories of relativity transformed our perception of light, energy, time/space and gravity. Together with Planck, Heisenberg, Bohr and others, Einstein established the foundations of quantum mechanics which opened our eyes to an unpredictable universe of quarks and neutrinos. We now know that classical concepts of causation are an illusion; that light can simultaneously be a particle and wave; that a subatomic particle can move from point A to point B without passing through the space in between; that under the principle of complementarity, matter can have two or more mutually inconsistent characteristics.

Well, I say big deal.

Illustrators, with their sharp eyes and keen powers of observation, already detected many of the same phenomena for which Einstein now claims credit.

For example, Einstein uprooted Newton's concept of gravity by explaining that gravity is not a universal "force" but only the movement of objects along paths in space/time that have been curved by the presence of matter. Below we see how theoretical physicist Art Frahm recorded an event contrary to the rules of Newtonian gravity:

Obviously, this young woman curved the path of space/time. It is likely that Einstein stole his theory from Frahm, whose numerous observations of this phenomenon were well documented as The Falling Panties Collection. Yet, to this day Frahm is ignored by the history books.

Illustrators were similarly prescient about the physical properties of light. The history books would have you believe that Einstein's Equivalence Principle first showed that light is not straight but bends around masses as a result of the curvature of space/time. But look at the aura of light that physicist Frank Frazetta discovered bending around these masses as a result of the curvature of space/time:

Once again, the scientific community has conspired to deny an illustrator the credit he is due.

As another example, illustrators were the first to discover that Newton's explanations for the properties of matter were inadequate to account for the behavior of flowing cloth on beautiful women. Only cloth engineered at the subatomic particle level using the latest nanotechnology could simultaneously flow so freely and yet cling so tightly:

Sadly, it is probably too late for illustrators to receive the credit they deserve for their important contributions to theoretical physics. The history books have been written and there are too many jealous scientists standing in the way.

But illustrators have identified other anomalies in the physical world that could affect other scientific disciplines. For example, note the following unusual behavior of plants that seems to contradict all known rules of classical botany:


Harold von Schmidt

Could we be far from a quantum theory of botany? And when that day comes, will illustrators finally get the credit they deserve?

Saturday, July 04, 2009


Andrew Wyeth

There may be no better test of what's inside an artist than their response to what's on our surface.

The drama of human flesh has inspired a variety of artistic reactions. As John Updike noted, "the menace of and the sadness of naked flesh have impressed artists as much as its grandeur and allure."

At the same time that skin inspires such reactions, it also provides artists with a broad and complex language for expressing feelings, thoughts and desires. Here are just a few samples:

Toulouse Lautrec brilliantly captures the weight of flesh

In this detail from his watercolor of a weary stripper backstage, Burt Silverman distinguishes between the color of flesh that has been exposed to the sun and flesh that has never seen the light of day.

The ultra-cool Bob Peak lowers the temperature of skin to the level of liquid nitrogen

Gustav Klimt excelled at finding mythical eroticism in flesh

Andrew Wyeth puts flesh under his microscope and finds it radiant

Contrast these rich portrayals of our mortal envelope with the abject poverty of popular technicians such as Vargas or Olivia:

The disparity between these artistic treatments shows that for artists with searching eyes, skin offers clues, promises and temptations about inner life and personality. These are the fuel for true eroticism. On the other hand, lesser artists find that skin blocks any inquiry beneath the surface and ultimately leaves them with a shallow and boring caricature of sexuality.

Artists such as Vargas and Olivia excel at painting flesh firm like sausage casing, but they seem oblivious to the cosmic significance of the freckles that they thoughtlessly airbrush from a bare shoulder.

I was reminded of the artistic importance of skin last week when artist
Kim Smith sent me an mpeg about the Omo river people in Africa who paint their skin in wondrously beautiful ways using natural pigments from the world around them.

If you can overlook its annoying quotes from Picasso, you may find this slide show about the Omo people as inspiring as I did: