Tuesday, August 30, 2016


At Comic-Con this year, I was struck by the number of prominent cartoonists who lectured on the virtues of simplicity.

Jim Davis, who presides over the Garfield empire, said that he tries to limit his strips to 25 words or less, and to get to the punchline in fewer than ten seconds.   Davis said that if readers spend longer than ten seconds, they might guess the punchline ahead of him.

Note that there are no backgrounds or details to distract the reader.  Davis also said that by using three nearly identical drawings, he spares readers the effort of thinking about transitions or shifting perspectives. 

Garfield was custom made for a low effort, short-attention-span audience, which means it is wildly successful.  In his talk, Davis impressed me as extremely bright and sophisticated.  His marketing strategy seemed similar to the strategy of cigarette companies that genetically modify tobacco plants to make nicotine more addictive.

Kate Beaton, creator of the popular webcomic Hark, A Vagrant! was another advocate for simplicity.

Like Davis, Beaton tries to minimize the number of words (which is good because she has little enthusiasm for punctuation, lettering, and sometimes spelling).  When it comes to drawing,  Beaton said, "I used to be self-conscious about my art.  The more I worked and tried to make it look finished, the worse it looked." Then she heard a story that made her realize she didn't need to work so hard.  According to the legend, illustrator Quentin Blake once had to rush an assignment and turned in quick, unfinished sketches which his art director liked even better than Blake's finished work.    This helped Beaton accept that her simple, casual sketches could be enough.

Beaton writes that her drawing process is "simplistic."  I agree with her, but I suspect she meant to say "simple."  ("Simplistic" means superficial, facile or oversimple. )  I think Beaton's real strengths are verbal-- her distinctive voice about historical characters and her thoughtful (and occasionally heartbreaking) stories about her home town. One might wonder why she chose an essentially visual medium to convey her ideas.

I love loose, naive drawing.  Some of the greatest drawings are the ones that have attained child-like simplicity.  Simplification is a wonderful discipline because it forces an artist to prioritize-- to continually sacrifice the lesser in favor of the greater until only the greatest is left.  But I fear that today's comics are flooded with mediocre drawing because the fashion is to view visual quality as expendable, a "lesser priority" which can be painlessly sacrificed in favor of the text or concept. 

In truth, this sacrifice hasn't hindered the success of Davis, Beaton or other mega successful cartoonists.  The New Yorker, with its literary emphasis, has become a cheerleader for these priorities.  Much of today's audience is incapable of distinguishing loose drawing from sloppy, careless drawing.  Like Beaton, they haven't mastered the difference between "simple" and "simplistic."

This trend isn't a tragedy on the level of climate change. However, it does suggest  that most art in today's strips falls short of the distinctive drawing that once made comics a great visual art form. Perhaps comics are evolving into a primarily literary medium with drawings serving a subordinate role as a mere lubricant for the words.


James Gurney said...

Looking at comic strips from the 1920s and '30s—Segar, Messmer, Opper, people like that—it's amazing how much ACTION they contain: donkeys kicking, people flying through the air, things blowing up, people punching, as well as funny walks and hilarious poses. In the case of really early comics like Rarebit Fiend or Little Nemo, the words almost seem like an afterthought, but it's the exquisitely drawn action that's the main dish.

PretentiousGoonsAreMyJam said...

More shitting on Beaton, color me surprised.

"Waaaaaaah, why are the people I don't like successful?! Everything should be the things I like!!"

David Apatoff said...

PretentiousGoonsAreMyJam-- You'll be far more persuasive if you can point out strengths in Ms. Beaton's drawing that I have missed. I think you'll find this forum is always receptive to informed discussion.

I understand that you feel passionate about Ms. Beaton's work. I promise you, for every fan of Beaton there are 10,000 passionate fans of Davis. If enthusiasm is your standard, does that mean the drawing in Garfield is 10,000 times better than the drawing in Hark, A Vagrant?

James Gurney-- I agree. The comics medium earned grudging respect over the decades with distinctive pictures by Segar, Messmer, Opper-- also Herriman, Harold Gray, Percy Crosby, Chester Gould, Alex Raymond-- they worked like dogs on the visual half of the equation. No casual scribbles or mechanical repetition for them. That's how comics became great. I think that going forward, more and more of the greatness of comics (to the extent they remain great) will come less from the pictures and more from the text.

Josh Kramer said...

Kate Beaton has a dynamic line quality, a strong ability to design characters, and a great handle on facial expressions and gestures. How can you not be charmed by strips like this?


It looks like you may be misunderstanding her work in the context of her specific medium: webcomics. Unlike the daily syndicated strip, webcomics are often much more iterative, with intense audience interaction. The webcomics idea of "learning in public" is much more of a Do It Yourself aesthetic than the one that Jim Davis came up in. Kate's audience knows the difference between her more polished, considered work and a quick idea that she worked up for the blog.

Bread said...

Hi David, wondering if you’ve taken a look at manga/webtoons? Often, the visual melds into the text in a way that’s unusual in contemporary comics...

Pablo gerbasi said...

tackling the technique in Kate Beaton in the way you are tackling it is a mistake.
for her technique is not about making a virtous drawing that awes the reader like say Prince Valiant, its about making you laugh and charm you. thats her intention and uses the medium in the most effective way possible. so her technique is excelent in that regard, she makes you laugh in a way that is not cheap and stupid or bland and boring (like Garfield. sorry garfield).

and i know you understand that theres power in a simple charming drawing, that not everything excelent has to be realistic. so when you change the standars you use it really looks like you are trying to give a "objetivity coat" to something that is purely subjective

David Apatoff said...

Jesso Hackberry-- Thank you for a more thoughtful assessment of Kate Beaton.

Let me emphasize that I have nothing at all against Ms. Beaton. I admire the way she combined her history education, her writing talent, her entrepreneurial energy and her sense of humor into a nice collection of work. My comment addressed only the quality of her drawing. I have made similar comments about The New Yorker magazine, which I believe has migrated under David Remnick from a focus on good drawing to a more text oriented humor.

You say that "Kate's audience knows the difference between her more polished, considered work and a quick idea that she worked up for the blog." I hope that most people interested in the arts are able to distinguish between polished, considered work and a quick idea. If you search this blog for the terms "sketchbook" or "sketch" or "working drawings" you'll find hundreds of hasty sketches, informal drawings from journals or sketchbooks, preliminary drafts and even doodles in the margins of finished comic art. Do you think Beaton's quick ideas are different in some way from these other quick ideas?

When I discussed these quick sketches in earlier posts I tried to explain why I admire them. It was usually because I found that they contain some insight, some astute observation, a sensitivity of line, some trail reflecting the hard work of constructing an image, or some flash of creativity. Obviously there is a wide range of laudable qualities in sketches, but at the core, I believe that we should be able to distinguish a quick idea of a talented artist from a random doodle in a high school notebook, no matter how "subjective" taste may be.

You say, "The webcomics idea of 'learning in public' is much more of a Do It Yourself aesthetic than the one that Jim Davis came up in." Just as I don't understand why Beaton's quick sketches should be evaluated by a different standard from other quick sketches in history, I confess I don't understand how the webcomics version of "learning in public" is any different from every other comic artist who has had to learn in public. Comic artists such as Frank Frazetta, Leonard Starr and Neal Adams all began working professionally as teenagers, much younger than Beaton, and their early work was pretty bad. They gradually learned in public (in the case of Neal Adams, every day was a published Ben Casey strip with Adams' name on it). Alex Raymond first began drawing Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9 at the same age that Beaton began publishing her webcomics. He had no formal art training (he lost his job with an investment firm during the great depression and had to learn to draw in public.) If you want to see some great learning, compare Raymond's clunkiest early strips in 1934 with what he was doing by 1939. Or for that matter, take a look at how illustrator Austin Briggs learned in public, starting with his early teenage illustrations for Collier's.

If there is some qualitative difference between webcomic "learning in public" and other types of learning in public, I would sincerely like to understand more about it.

I enjoyed the strip you described as charming, and I have heard that word used a lot in connection with Beaton, but let me ask you this: are you charmed by her ideas or by her drawing?

David Apatoff said...

Pablo gerbasi-- You are absolutely correct that I don't think good drawing requires technique like Prince Valiant. In fact, with the exception of a few early years I'm not a big fan of Prince Valiant. It's a heroic, epic effort but I tend to find the drawings stiff and overworked. I have raved about all kinds of drawing here that doesn't share those formal, realistic qualities.

I don't agree that art is "purely subjective" but I do believe drawings should be evaluated by how well an artist achieves his or her own chosen objectives, keeping in mind the significance of those objectives (That is, I tend to give an artist more credit for ambitious objectives than I do for trivial objectives). That's at least an element of subjectivity, isn't it?

You say that in the case of Beaton, it's about making us laugh and charming us. I think those are fine objectives. When I compare her work against other contemporary comic art with similar objectives-- for example, Richard Thompson's strip Cul de Sac-- I think both are what you call "simple charming drawing." But Cul de Sac shows how a child-like scrawl with a simple, rough line can still be remarkable drawing. Thompson understood that if he was going to use a visual medium, he had to respect that medium. Otherwise he might as well be a composer or a dancer. I don't get that same sense from Beaton's drawing, whose line is more monotonous than Thompson's and whose distortions have none of the comic intent or expressiveness of Thompson's.

It might be instructive to compare the lettering in Cul de Sac with the lettering in Hark, A Vagrant; both are loose and simple, yet the former has funny character, personality and charm, while the latter seems more a lazy, slapdash form of writing. Thompson recognized that even the lettering has a visual impact and had to be part of a thoughtful presentation, while Beaton's lettering looks like an afterthought, to be squeezed in where possible. Lettering isn't the same thing as drawing but it is a way of comparing apples to apples, and I think it shows the difference that a sensitivity to visual form makes.

I'm not trying to compare the content of the text or the humor here; I'm trying to isolate the visual elements to keep the comparison as clean as possible. And I'm not trying to turn drawing into a competition. My point is simply to give you an example of a strip with simple drawings "about making you laugh and charming you" that I view as visually stronger. It's not a matter of "technique" or "realism."

Bread-- Only on a very limited basis. They seem to be a longer, horizontal form of a strip. Are there any you'd like to recommend?

MORAN said...

Millenials don't know squat about drawing. They like Kate for her inside jokes.

Li-An said...

Riad Sattouf, a very successful french comic artist - and movie director - claims he loves Corben’s work... but as it was too difficult for him to draw like Corben, he chose a more simple drawing http://aliasnoukette.fr/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Retouraucollege2.jpg. Lewis Trondheim considers he is a lazy drawer http://www.actuabd.com/local/cache-vignettes/L450xH640/ralph_1-fc093.jpg?1469026020

But their comics works very well. The drawings matches the stories - and they don’t draw strips (well, sometimes) so they have to draw different stuff.

The big problem with actual drawings is it’s juged by people looking at Art History. Craft and technique in figurative drawing and painting is suspect. Approximative drawings is more acceptable: if the artist does not show skills, the critics can consider he/she is not a "real figurative artist". I’m very upset when I read some reviews about comics and the critic write about the quality of the drawing for a very poor work. A lot of critics have no capacity to judge drawings, they have a poor culture in this field.

In this (US) discussions about great drawing in comics, no one is speaking about Franquin’s work. He is considered as a genius in french/belgium comics and he always improved his drawing skills http://66.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m8u1y35HdY1rq3prxo1_1280.jpg

I think very simple drawing is so popular these days because public is looking for something very near of their ability and world. It’s interesting to see that the same public is fond of super heroes movies very rich visually and the same for video games.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Well, I wouldn't want to generalize about all milennials but there does seem to be a diminished appreciation for drawing among the general population. My guess is that people who have shifted their focus to images that move and talk have lost much of the patience and the inquisitive eye and even the thoughtfulness to appreciate still pictures.

I do think there's something to your point about "in jokes." When I ask people what they find especially charming about Beaton, many of them like that she superimposes her generation's vocabulary and sense of humor on historical figures. It's cute that historical figures speak with modern profanity or have modern attitudes about feminism, etc. It's easy to see how Beaton's generation would find such observations endearing but I don't think future generations will find timeless qualities in her drawing.

Li-An wrote: "It’s interesting to see that the same public is fond of super heroes movies very rich visually and the same for video games."

That's an interesting point, Li-An. Movies and video games are high resolution, high density, highly detailed but also computer assisted. Perhaps artists don't care to compete with computers when it comes to making careful, representational, detailed work any more, and have surrendered that territory. It's a no win proposition to do such drawings manually because there aren't enough hours in a day to replicate what computers do. Old fashioned manual drawing in that style is so outmatched, perhaps artists want to stay far away from that category altogether.

I also agree with your point that "A lot of critics have no capacity to judge drawings, they have a poor culture in this field." Art critics are so flummoxed by the subjectivity and nihilism of much of contemporary art, only a very few (such as Hughes) have the courage to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes. Worse, the subjectivity of the art seems to have infected the vocabulary used to describe the art. When someone says that Kate Beaton's drawing style is "dynamic" (which used to mean "energetic" or "vigorous") I just don't know what to make of it. Her lines seem like normal fluid doodle lines to me; that's not a bad thing, but it has none of the speed or musculature that I'd normally associate with an adjective such as "dynamic" but obviously there are others out there who disagree with me.

Li-An said...

There was some years ago an exhibition of Crumb’s work at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and Crumb said at the opening that the "specialists" he met who were in charge of the exhibition knew probably what Warhol ate at breakfast but had no idea of the work of illustrators and artists who influenced Crumb. That was ironic but so true.

About comics vs. movie/video games, I think artists who have good craftmanship are working for these industries - it’s much more convenient for a young artist and they dream about this. In France, comic artists had very little solution to study drawing when I was young (Angoul√™me school, Les Gobelins...). Today, there are plenty of art schools giving formation into animation, illustration or comics. But young students are prepared to work in the industry, not as independant artists.
When I was young, working for Disney or Lucas for a french artist was a sort of unreacheable dream - so artists tried to create their own world. Now, the very good ones are working for Hollywood or video games.

Bread said...

I’d recommend Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo, and Sunny, by Taiyo Matsumoto, for very different insights as to what the manga genre can do, drawingwise.

Laurence John said...

i think Beaton's drawing style suits the quick-fire, irreverent, funny dialogue perfectly.
also, it's practically a tour de force compared to Garfield.

bill said...

Great discussion, but I want to come back to simple vs simplistic and give you a great big thank you. Pet peeve with my students. My obsession with this started when teaching at a small university. We were obtaining bids for a new electronic/digital communications system campus wide. The man who won the bid, over the objections of the faculty senate, had named his company, "Simplistic Communications" a gaff the faculty couldn't forgive. The administration went with this slick, fast talker anyway. He turned out to be a disaster. OK back to the more important discussion.