Apr
29
2020

Back From the Old School: Showing Motion via Repeated figures in a Single Panel

Lately, I’ve been noting a lot of panels like this in the comics I read and it’s made me wonder about what exactly this technique is, how how it works, and where it came from:

What it is:

This is from Cyril Pedrosa’s recent (and amazing) book L’age d’or, which is now out in English as The Golden Age. What’s going on here formally (and the dialog isn’t really important to it, so you don’t need to be able to read it) is that each set of horses and riders in this image is are the same horses and riders; they’re just progressing through time over a static background. It’s not a technique you see a ton in comics, but once you’re aware of it you’ll find it cropping up more often than you’d suspect in your reading. 

So, what are we actually seeing here formally? Repeated images (usually characters) in comics, moving through time and space over a single background, without the use of gutters/panels to create sequence or explicitly dictate reading order.  

It’s worth noting that Paul Gravett has a great post on a lot of the same general subject matter here–although he doesn’t draw fine distinctions between what could be seen as a few different varieties of repeated image techniques. In Gravett’s article–which appears to be written in 2008–he’s springboarding his discussion off of Gianni De Luca’s (he’ll be mentioned below) extensive use of this technique in his adaptation of Hamlet. Toward the end of the article Gravett has this to say:

While it would be possible to catalogue still more cases of this effect, no doubt in Chris Ware’s output or in manga, from what I have found so far they amount to little more than certain special panels or pages – fascinating efforts, experiments or oddities – but mostly they bear no comparison for me to De Luca’s huge skill and sustained use, not only in Hamlet but also Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.

This statement may still be true. I wonder, though, if the extensive use of this technique in L’age d’or wouldn’t put it at least in the same ballpark as Ge Luca’s work far as cartoonists really digging in and exploring how this technique can be applied? It’s used pretty extensively throughout L’age d’or and its sustained and repeated use by Pedrosa there is certainly unlike any recent comic that I’m aware of. It’s part of the meat of the story and how it functions–certainly not one-off oddities. 

What it isn’t:

There are several formal devices in comics that look a lot like this technique on the surface. Some function similarly in a formal sense, and some just resemble it superficially but function differently. Here are three formal devices that bear some resemblance to what’s going on in the above image, but aren’t exactly the same thing:

1) Repeated image to represent speed – This is probably the most common sort of repeated image you see in comics. In this Carmine Infantino Flash panel, for example, we understand that there are not actually five identical people here; it’s an image of a single person moving very quickly. And, much like that L’age d’or panel, that character is moving through space and there’re no panel borders breaking up this motion. 

So, why don’t I think this is the same thing? Scott McCloud gets to the root of it in his discussion of this device in Understanding Comics:

 

“Photographic.” “Film.” This is a device that’s mimicking the effect of a camera. It’s primarily optical rather than diagrammatic.

I think this idea is supported by the (as far as I can tell) total absence of this sort of device in any kind of visual art until after the invention of the camera. (I’d love to be proved wrong, though. If you can find one, let me know on the comments!)

Further, I think supporting the idea that this is different from what we see in that L’age d’or panel is looking at how it’s used. This type of repeated image–the type that emulates a “motion blur” is pretty much always used as a visual indicator of speed. It’s not a coincidence that you see this employed a ton in comics like, well, The Flash. In contrast, I think it’s pretty clear that that L’age d’or panel is not supposed to indicate that the characters are moving quickly; if anything, it evokes a languid  conversation that’s happening over an extended time as the characters meander through their environment. 

Linguist Neal Cohn refers to comics effects where images are repeated to indicate speed or motion as “partial reduplication” (“partial” because only the moving parts of the objects are duplicated visually),  as seen here in this slide he shared with me via Twitter:

My gut feeling here is that, of those images above, the left two are somewhat different formally than the right two. The right ones are pretty clearly mimicking a photographic effect; the left two seem to me to be maybe an extension of this photpgraphy-based language that’s mixed in more with comics’s native diagrammatic abilities. But, that’s a bit of hair-splitting for some other time, perhaps! 

2) The polyptych – I’ve seen several different terms for this particular device, but “polyptych” is what McCloud calls them and that’s what seems to have stuck. The polyptych is kind of a catch-all comics term for any time a single background/location is subdivided into multiple panels. Sometimes a polyptych is simply this–a setting divided into panels–as in this panel from Master of Kung-Fu. There’s nothing moving here, no repeated figures:

Other times, there’s a repeated figure included, which brings it very, very close to our original L’age d’or example, as here in this Gasoline Alley strip:

Unlike the L’age d’or panel, though, we have the added element of division by panels/gutters. The figure is repeated once in each panel. You read it left to right, top to bottom, with the grid dictating your reading movement. 

You can find a great decade-by-decade index of these things online here.

3) Transformation – This, again, has some superficial resemblance to our original panel, but to my mind is pretty different functionally. The classic image of this is a character transforming from one state to another, like The Hulk, as we see here in this slide from Neil Cohn:

We’ve for sure got a repeated character in this kind of thing, but not the sense of a lot of time passing, as we get with the L’age d’or panel. The backgrounds (such as they are) are singular, but there’s no sense of motion being communicated here–the character is not moving through the background space. 

Where did it come from?

So, one thing that interests me about this thing that we see in that L’age d’or panel is how it’s simultaneously comics-y and not comics-y.

It’s very comics-y in that it’s using two-dimensional art to show the passage of time and it’s doing so in a way that’s diagrammatic rather than completely mimetic. It’s not comics-y, though, in that it’s more primitive(?) in a way, since it doesn’t utilize one of comics’s main formal tools: panels. Despite how esoteric discussion of this device may seem at first glance, there’s a common almost-version of this technique that I’m betting even non-comics people know pretty well: the famous “map” comics of The Family Circus.

In this case, though, we don’t get the repeated character as he moves throughout the background–just an indication of where he’s been on his journey.

And <shocker… it may not even be a map at all, according to Bill Keane. Mind blown!

So, back to the origin of this thing… here’s another example of it, from Vincent Vanoli:

I don’t think it’s just coincidence that both the Pedrosa image and this one are from comics that take place in a Medieval-type setting. In both cases, I’d bet the artists were lifting this particular technique from what is, as far as I can tell, its true origin: Renaissance and Medieval art.

Here’s The Tribute Money, from the 1420’s by the painter Masaccio:

Note that this is not just a crowd of people; it’s a story with the same characters repeated as they move both physically through the background/space and through time.  First, at the center of the painting, a tax collector is demanding money; then, off to the left where Peter and Jesus are pointing, we see Peter getting some money out of a fish (The Bible is weird, y’all!); then, finally on the far right of the painting, Peter pays the tax collector.

Similar deal here in The Journey and Meeting of Saint Anthony with Saint Paul the Hermit by the Master of the Osservanza from the early 1400’s:

Some more of these things:

As mentioned, once you’ve seen a few of these, you start to keep an eye out for them. Here’re a few that I’ve noted over the past few months: 

This is from Javier Pulido’s great run on She-Hulk a while back. One neat thing about this one is how you’re moved through the scene in a back-and-forth way that takes you all the way to the rightmost side of the two-page spread, then back to the left-facing page to continue reading.

This is an example from Gianni De Luca, who–as noted by Gravett–uses this technique a ton.

Here’s a beautiful spread from Hicotea: A Nightlights Story by Lorena Alvarez. The reading order of this one threw me for a bit initially because you have to start at the bottom. You then go up the stairs, then “fall” down to the floor on the right.

Yeah, it’s yet another one from L’age d’or, but I had to throw this one in since it’s an example where each individual long panel is a self-contained example of this technique, with them all functioning as a sequence showing the character moving through three different environments. 

I’m throwing this spread from Kyoko Ariyoshi’s manga, Swan, into the mix here as an interesting example that I think kinda-is and kinda-isn’t what I’m talking about. It satisfies the base requirements: repeated figure, moving through a single static background, no panel borders, not a visual shortcut to connote speed. But, it seems to be so overly photography based–and the background so non-essential to how it works–that I’d probably not fully characterize it as being exactly the same thing as the examples above. Like most attempts to put formal comics techniques into strict categories, there’s always a fair amount of wiggle room. Some of De Luca’s work, particularly in Hamlet, seems to skate this fine line as well. 

This is very definitely not the same thing as what’s under discussion, but I wanted to point it out because it’s such an interesting (and early for comics) example of the Flash-style “ghost image to connote speed” thing. The three figures here seem to be used much like the Infantino Flash image above, but the two trailing images here are actually other boxers who have previously trained at this same location–and run on this same stretch of road presumably. 

What the heck do we call these things? 

You may have noticed that amidst all the discussion of this thing, I’ve been conspicuously avoiding actually referring to it by name. That’s mainly because it doesn’t seem to have a fully settled-upon name–and the ones that are used are kind of awkward. But there is some writing on this type of comics device and obviously, in those writings it has to be referred to by some name.

Neil Cohn uses the term “reduplication” to generally refer to any of these devices that involves repeated drawing of the same thing. I like this term, partly because it’s fairly simple and straightforward, but also because of what it means. As Neil explains, “[reduplication] in language is repeating a form to create added meaning. ‘I’ll have the salad-salad, not the potato salad.'” In the case of these comics, this makes a lot of sense: that second (and third, and fourth, etc.) drawing of the figures in, say, that She-Hulk panel create added meaning. He refers to the kind of thing I’m discussing here specifically as “polymorphic reduplication,” although he also seems to use this term for instances in which reduplication is used to show motion. So, this seems to include both the thing I’m discussing, but also more broadly includes something like that Flash panel.

In that Paul Gravett article I mentioned way back at the beginning of this, he goes through and catalogs a few different terms people have used for this technique. Among the labels he turns up is “continuous narrative,” which comes from a book not specifically about comics, but about Renaissance art: Story and Space in Renaissance Art: The Rebirth of Continuous Narrative by Lew Andrews. (A book I’m now going to investigate for sure.)

Charles Hatfield used the terms “undivided polyptych” and “synchronistic” in his book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature for these sorts of panels. “Undivided polyptych” has a straight-ahead appeal, since “polyptych” is already a term in comics that people know. “Polyptych,” though is a bit problematic in itself since it’s been appropriated from the world of non-comics art where it’s used to refer to artworks that consist of several individual physical frames/panels stuck together–which may or may not have any narrative content, may or may not even have a continuous image, and don’t seem to ever be used to connote motion:

Whatever these things are called, I’ve become (obviously) fascinated with them. Part of their appeal to me is for sure just my attraction to any sort of  formal experimentation that pushes comics’ conventional “toolkit” of techniques. Beyond that, though, I think the reason I’m drawn to this very specific type of use of repeated image (rather than the “motion blur”/photography-derived technique, or even the slightly more comics-y Gasoline Alley-type polyptych) is that it so clearly shows that two of the main things that we comics people are specifically very concerned with–visual narrative and using two-dimensional space to show the passage of time–are things that, in fact, have been concerning artists in general for centuries.  

 

 

Mar
22
2020

The Vasquez Rocks of Comics

Even if you don’t recognize the name “Vasquez Rocks,” you’ve likely seen the rocks themselves. The Vasquez Rocks are a group of distinctively-shaped rock formations outside of Los Angles that have appeared in many, many T.V. shows and movies–from Westerns like Bonanza (and Blazing Saddles!) through to relatively modern films like Little Miss Sunshine and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. If, though, like me, you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll know these rocks from many, many appearances in the franchise–both in its film and T.V. versions–beginning with the TOS episode, Arena, in which Kirk famously fights the Gorn:

So, do we have a Vazquez Rocks of comics?

Now, when I say, “the Vasquez Rocks of comics,” I’m not meaning literal appearances of the Vasquez Rocks in comics–although, that has happened. Here, for example, French cartoonist Christophe Blain has inserted them in his most recent Gus adventure. The rocks are only one of many, many references in the book to old American Westerns–including, coincidentally, a cameo by Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley (who was also in numerous Westerns).

No, when I say “Vasquez Rocks of comics,” what I’m getting at are locations that appear in different comics repeatedly because of the ubiquity of a particular reference image that turns up in images searches! I first noticed this phenomenon when working on the very first story in Four-Fisted Tales, a story that takes place during the battle of Verdun in WWI. Here’s a panel from the story:

Months after drawing that panel, though, I happened upon a review of this comic–which also deals with the battle of Verdun:

I knew immediately what the story here was. If you do a Google image search for “battle of Verdun” this will appear on about the eighth or ninth row in the results:

This artist and I had both done the same Google image search and both decided to incorporate the same image into our comics (for obvious reasons–it’s a pretty striking image). Once this phenomenon came to my attention, though, I started keeping an eye out for it.

Here’s another one. This image is from Trench Dogs (another coincidence: it’s published by Dead Reckoning, who also will be publishing Four-Fisted Tales). It’s the interior of a submarine. 

When I saw this page, it looked familiar… because I’d seen the photo ref image that I’m certain it was based on. It turned up via Google image search both when I was researching subs for my previous book, Oyster War, and for a story with a submarine in Four-Fisted Tales. While not nabbed quite as whole-hog as the Verdun example, you can see elements of the photo incorporated into the Trench Dogs page–even down to the wheel/chain thing in the very last panel. 


I did a similar thing with it in Four-Fisted Tales: just grabbed elements here and there (although, most of this image is based on a more modern bit of photo ref, since it’s a WWII sub):

So, I hereby decree that henceforth, this phenomenon of cartoonists swiping from the same photo ref image be referred to as “Vasquez rocking.” 

Note: I will update this post as I catalog more images of comics Vasquez rocking… and of course, if you spot any such Vasquez rocking out in the wild, leave a comment or hit me up on twitter!

Mar
09
2020

From the Sketchbook: Dogfighting Dogs!

I’m certainly the five billionth person to do drawings of dog pilots (when they “dogfight” they’re literally dogs!! Get it?!) but for whatever reason, I recently wound up doing a batch of quick watercolors of dogs in WWII-era pilot gear. Well, “for whatever reason” isn’t entirely accurate; the reason is at least partially that I had just watched the recent documentary, Spitfire, about the WWII fighter plane of the same name. (Streaming on Amazon Prime btw. Watch it!)

So, here’re a few dogs:

But, hey, when I went to get pictures of these from my sketchbook, I remembered I’d done a couple of cats too! So, here they are:

If your first thought on seeing those was, “Hey, that’s kinda like MAUS, where the various factions are depicted as different animals,” that was pretty much a thought I had as well–except what came to mind was one of my fave “funny animal” comics, Apocalypse Meow (or Cat Shit One, as it’s known in Japan). Sadly out of print for ages here in the U.S., it’s a war comic with antro characters set in Vietnam. 

Anyway, I like those cat and dog WWII characters, but I doubt I’ll ever do anything with them. I’m in the middle of a military/war book at the moment (Four-Fisted Tales) and when that’s done, I’m going to jump back on my antro animals book (In the Weeds), so I’ve kinda got both the “military” and the “animal characters” bit on the roster already.

Incidentally, those images were done with a materials combination I just recently started fooling with and very much like: watercolor, then finished with carbon pencil (and a bit of gouache for highlights). Here, for example, is a recent drawing of an alien I did using the same technique:

Jan
05
2020

What I Read in 2019

In past years I’ve done a list of all the comics (and comics-related stuff) I’ve read, with a short write-up for each item. This year, that’s just not feasible given the amount of material I read and the time I have available… but here’s my list for 2019 with a few comments on things here and there. 

Note that there are most certainly books I’ve forgotten to add to my list that I’ll no doubt remember after I’ve posted this, and there are for sure a ton of mini-comics in particular that I read quickly then prematurely filed in my office minicomic heap without recording them. 


Charlotte Impératrice (FR) – Matthieu Bonhomme

Charlotte Impératrice : 1. La Princesse et l'Archiduc - un ...

Bonhomme is a French cartoonist who is sadly not well-represented in English translation. This book begins a multi-volume story of Carlota of Mexico. The art style is a bit more neo-realistic than previous Bonhomme stuff I’ve read and the coloring is really interesting: it seems like an attempt to pair flat coloring of figures with limited palettes and  extensive use of gradients for backgrounds. Some of the big panels and spreads in here are mind-blowing. You see his process for one in this video.

Here – Richard McGuire

Here by Richard McGuire Review :: Comics :: Reviews :: Paste

The basic conceit of the original strip this book’s an expansion of is so brilliant that it’s literally changed the formal language of comics. I enjoyed reading this, but there’s an air of of “remaking Stairway to Heaven” to the project. Still, I’ll take what I can get from McGuire, who doesn’t do actual full-on comics very often. 

The Invisibles volumes 2 & 3 – Grant Morrison

The Invisibles: Book 1 by Grant Morrison graphic novel ...

I’ve been a big fan of this series ever since it came out, but had not read the full third series until now. That third installment is a bit haphazard for sure, but the second volume–still my favorite volume–is pretty great even on a third (fourth?) read.  I’m still listening along with The King Mobcast as they go through the series. 

Born to be Posthumous – Mark Dery 
Bezoar # 3  – various artists
Beneath the Dead Oak Tree – Emily Carroll
Audubon: On the Wings of the World – Fabien Grolleau

Atomic Empire – Thierry Smolderen and Alexandre Clérisse

Culture SF - Souvenir de l'empire de l'Atome

This book is worth checking out for its aesthetic alone. As you can see above, it’s got a late 50’s/early 60’s advertising art/UPA thing going on that’s unlike pretty much anything else you’re gonna see in comics (all done in illustrator, apparently, as you can see in this video). I was pretty surprised that this book didn’t make more of a splash… but (inexplicably) all the promotion I could find for from its North American publisher didn’t have any samples of the interior art! The story is fascinating and ambitious–and I admit I didn’t fully get the ending–but it’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Beyond the Windy Isles – Hugo Pratt
Celtic Tales – Hugo Pratt

Image result for Celtic Tales by Hugo Pratt

Beyond the Windy Isles is absolutely great stuff–just what you want from Corto Maltese: seafaring proto-Han Solo adventures drawn in Pratt’s exquisite “about to fly off the hinges” style… Which is what makes Celtic Tales such and odd bump in the Corto road. It’s odd both story-wise and art-wise. The stories find Corto in land-locked European settings that don’t really give Pratt a chance to show off his best chops, drawing stuff like vegetation and water. And, as weird as it sounds to say, some of the drawing in this volume does kind of fly off the rails. Things are sloppy. Characters are off-looking, Don’t even get me started on the story where characters from Arthurian legend help Corto blow up a WWII sub (or something like that).  

Guirlanda (FR) – by Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky
Frankenstein – by Junji Ito
The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall by Drew Weing
I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB Vol. 1 – Jacques Tardi
Popeye, Vol. 1: I Yam What I Yam – E.C. Segar
Popeye, Vol. 2: Well Blow me Down – E.C. Segar

Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies – Marc Singer

Arguably the most important book about comics in 2019–and for sure the one that stirred the most controversy. I wrote a post with my thoughts on it here.

Emma G. Wildford (FR) – Zidrou (Writer), Edith (Artist)
Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus Volume 2 – Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Little Bird #1 & #2 – Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram

Witch Hat Atelier vol. 1 & 2: Kamome Shirahama

Image result for witch hat atelier

My favorite manga of recent vintage. The first volume is slightly rote story-wise–it’s the classic “regular kid discovers they’re actually a super-special magic user and winds up at wizard school” bit–but, by the second volume things begin to differentiate from the standard “wizard school” narrative and get interesting. The really unique magic system outlined in the book is one of its best features, as is the gobsmackingly pretty Moebius-inflected (but still obviously manga) artwork. 

The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of MUTTS and the Art of Patrick McDonnell – Patrick McDonnell

Image result for The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of MUTTS and the Art of Patrick McDonnell

This is a big, beautiful retrospective art book celebrating the first 25 years of the newspaper strip, Mutts. It’s filled with scans of original art, early advertising/illustration art by McDonnell, color guides for Sunday strips, and selected “best of” strips. Mutts is one of the few currently running truly great newspaper comics and it’s great to see it get such a high-caliber milestone retrospective.  

Sobek – James Stokoe

Image result for Sobek - James Stokoe

This one may be a bit difficult to track down, but it’s well worth it. It’s an abjectly ridiculous (and I mean that in the absolute best way) story about a crocodile god that begrudgingly heeds the calls of his worshipers to do battle with a rival deity. As with all things James Stokoe, the art is jaw-dropping panel after jaw-dropping panel of exquisite detail and bonkers color.   

Pope Hats #6 – Hartley Lin
Oishinbo – Izakaya: Pub Food – Tetsu Kariya and and Akira Hanasaki
Le Journal de mon Père (FR) – Jirō Taniguchi
The Columbus Scribbler #3 – various artists

Bill Blackbeard – The Collector Who Rescued Comics – Jenny E. Robb & Alec Longstreth

Image

You’ve gotta get this one at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum here in Columbus! If–like me–you were obsessed with the old Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics as a kid, you know who Bill Blackbeard is. This short comic, illustrated by Alec Longstreth (Basewood, Phase 7), is a quick history of his life and influence, based on research by Billy Ireland’s Jenny E. Robb. 

Ready for Pop – Hurk

In Review: Ready for Pop by Hurk – downthetubes.net

Hurk is apparently a staple of the indie comics scene in the U.K., but not well known here in the U.S… which is too bad, because this book is fantastic. As you can see, it’s got a great 90’s-esque indie comics look to it that’s all but vanished here in the U.S. largely as a result of the ubiquity of color printing. The story’s set in mid-60’s London and centers on a pop singer who’s been inexplicably shrunken. Nicely drawn, fun, and funny–pick it up if you can. 

Wasted Space #1 – Michael Moreci & Hayden Sherman
Egg Cream #1 – Liz Suburbia
Meeting Comics #1 – Andrew Neal
Paul Moves Out – Michel Rabagliati
Pope Hats #1 – Ethan Rilly
Planetes Vol. 2 – Makoto Yukimura
The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City – Brendan Leach

Canopus #1-#4 – Dave Chisholm

Image

This series isn’t coming out until February, but Dave’s been posting bits and pieces to Twitter intermittently… and he generously let me read an advanced digital version of the series. This story ticks a lot of boxes for me: a SF story drawn in a somewhat cartoony style, great Solaris-esque premise, beautiful coloring, unconventional page layouts and storytelling. Definitely be on the lookout for this in a few months from Scout Comics.  

Tintin and the Picaros – Hergé

Hergé and Tintín..AMAZING !! | El Baúl de Guardián 

So, this may or may not be the end of my couple years’ long chronological read/reread of Tintin (I can’t decide if I’m gonna bother with Alph-Art). This book seems to be largely considered the worst of the late-era Tintin books, but I found it more just rote than anything. Coming not too far after the heartfelt Tintin in Tibet and then the near-meta story that is Castafiore Emerald, this seems (aside from some typical late-era weirdness like odd close-up staging and characters behaving a bit out-of-character at times) this just seems like a standard “Tintin goes somewhere” adventure from the beginning of Hergé’s career. Now the previous book, Flight 714there’s a terrible Tintin book!


See you next year… and read more comics!

Oct
26
2019

Selected Sketchbook Drawings – October 2019

I haven’t posted any sketchbook pages in forever, so here goes… 

Truth be told, I’d weirdly fallen out of my years-long habit of drawing nightly in my sketchbook and have only recently gotten back into it. Why had I fallen off? I’m not exactly sure–other than that I’ve had a lot of “life getting in the way” events happening in the last year and a half or so. And, as I’ve been working pretty steadily on Four-Fisted Tales, I’ve been keeping up with drawing pretty much every day, even if it wasn’t in my sketchbook. Thankfully though I’ve gotten back in the sketchbook habit–and I’m all the better for it. Non-directed drawing is something that I feel is really beneficial, even if you’re working on/drawing a comic regularly. 

(And if you’re interested in more regular sketchbook stuff, I regularly post my sketchbook work to my IG – @ben_f_towle.) 

So, below is just a handful of things selected from either my actual physical sketchbook or from “pages” of digital sketching that I’ve been doing on my Wacom MobileStudio Pro. (I’vs also started regularly attending weekly live animal-drawing sessions at CCAD, but those are so loose and gestural–not to mention hard to scan, given their size–that I’m not including them here.)

Here’s a digital sketch I did of (80’s-era) Madonna. I believe this is from a photo from a semi-recent MOJO Magazine. 

One of the things that’s really helped me get back into sketchbook work is attending a weekly drink-n-draw here in Columbus. There are a few different comics-focused events of the sort, but the one I go to is Tuesday nights at Two Dollar Radio. I make a point to work only non-digitally there and try out new materials as much as possible. (The fact that my office at CCAD is literally a stone’s throw from the art supply store is good for my artistic development… but bad for my bank account for sure.)

This is some experimentation with a carbon pencil. I first got interested in carbon pencils via Mark Schultz’s recent illustration work. He’s able to get them to blend seamlessly with traditional pen and ink work. I’m using it here more like regular charcoal or pencil. 

 

These two characters are obviously digital. As with all the digital stuff here, this was done in Clip Studio Paint. With these I’m using some tone layers in two different percentage values. 

Here’re a few more digital sketches: a whole “page” and then a close up of some kinda weird elephant creature I drew. I’m playing around with a lot of CSP stuff: tone layers, hatching brushes, etc.

Along those same lines (fooling around with a lot of digital CSP stuff) here’s a small, quick digital sketch of my dog that I really liked and a few random animal sketches on a single page:

I spent several of my early drink-n-draw sessions at the beginning of the school year working with my little Cotman watercolor kit. Here’re a few excerpts: a full page of random doodling, a warthog in Edwardian garb (don’t ask–no idea), and some explorations of Akira Toriyama’s (amazing) car designs:

Finally, here’s a handful of ballpoint pen sketches–the first an image of Kathleen Hanna from (again) a MOJO Magazine, then just a few doodles. I taught a unit on ballpoint illustration in one of my classes this term and as a side effect, I’ve been really getting into ballpoint myself. It’s a pretty unforgiving medium, but I love the way you can get anything from a colored pencil-like uniform, smooth color to very obvious hatchy mark-making.

Sep
10
2019

SPX 2019! (And Other Comics Stuff During the Weekend…)

SPX 2019: Third wave of special guests includes Hannah ...

I’ve missed the last two SPX’s, so I’m very excited to be attending this year’s event… but that’s not the point of this (very quick) blog post. In planning my trip, I’ve noted a few other comics-related events that are going on at the same period in the Washington area which don’t seem to be well-covered or well-advertised.


Comic Art: 120 years of Panels and Pages

Weirdly, I can find almost no info about this online, but at the end of the week a comics exhibit opens at the Library of Congress. Here’s about the only thing I found about it online: 

In conjunction with the 25th Anniversary of SPX, the Library of Congress is holding a year-long retrospective of the history of comics. Works from the SPX Collection at the Library of Congress will be displayed from Jaime Hernandez, Bill Griffith, and Raina Telgemeier among others. These works will be shown alongside those of George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Richard Outcault and other historically distinguished comics creators.

The exhibition in the Thomas Jefferson Building on the ground floor behind the gift shop in the Graphic Arts Gallery.

Visitor Hours to the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building (Tours, Exhibitions, Gallery Talks):

* Friday: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
* Saturday: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
* Sunday: Closed

 

100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal

There is also an exhibit of Mexican political cartooning currently in D.C., 100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal: Mexico-United States As Seen By Mexican Cartoonists. Here’s the blurb from the Mexican Cultural Institute website:

The Mexican Cultural Institute is proud to announce its newest exhibit, 100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal: Mexico – United States as Seen by Mexican Cartoonists, taking place from September 4 through October 30, 2019. The exhibit collects a brief sample of the thousands of cartoons published in 100 years in the widely known newspaper, El Universal, where almost all Mexican cartoonists of the 20th century have traveled through. This exhibit reads as a nodal part of the history of the cartoon in Mexico and includes a brief representation of the artists who traced and portrayed the history of the country. The pages of El Universal have shown the critical work, with aesthetic greatness, by artists such as Andrés Audiffred, Eduardo del Río Rius, Helioflores and Rogelio Naranjo, who have all shaped Mexican national events with art and humor.

There’s a good write-up on the show on Mike Rhode’s excellent blog of D.C. area comics events: 100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal

The Institute is located at 2829 16th St., NW and here are the hours:

Monday-Friday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday: 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunday: Closed


See you there! 

Aug
13
2019

Forest vs. Trees in Marc Singer’s Breaking the Frames

At this point it’s not news that Marc Singer’s recent book, Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies, has stirred up a fair amount of controversy. It’s a testament to the provocative nature of the book’s assertions that this controversy has spilled out beyond the usually insular world of the book’s chosen subject matter–comics studies in academia–into the wider sphere of comicsdom in general. I’m case in point; while I do teach illustration at an art school, I’m by no stretch an “academic,” but I bought and read Breaking the Frames shortly after its release. I’ve noted as well much discussion of the book on Twitter (most notably via Kim O’Connor’s weekly chapter-by-chapter read through) and it’s been brought up at more than one beer-sodden post-con get-together I’ve attended. And of course it’s no doubt been a subject of much chatter I’m not privy to in academic circles.     

When I read through Breaking the Frames I took detailed notes, thinking I’d do (as I now am in fact doing) a blog post about the book and my thoughts on it. Now however, some seven months after the book’s release, I doubt I have much to say about the minutiae of the book’s particular arguments that’s not already been hashed over in some other more widely-read venue. I do, though, have a couple of–as the title of this post hints at–very general points that I took away from my reading.

What Comics Studies is Studying

The first passage in this book that made me stop and do a double-take occurs before the book proper even gets going. It’s here, at the end of the introduction, where Singer lays out how the book is organized:

This certainly wasn’t intended as any sort of “bombshell” proclamation, but I did a full stop when I read it–not because I doubted its veracity, but exactly the opposite: I recognized it as true. In laying out the organizational scheme for an analysis of the field of comics studies as a whole, Singer just casually drops that you can basically divide the types of comics that the field actively engages with into exactly two genres: superhero comics… and non-fiction/memoirs.

Imagine reading a book on the current state of film studies that–without much further comment on the matter–divided itself into a section on high school summer vacation comedies and a section on nature documentaries. Before you got much further, your first thought would most certainly be, “Well, there’s clearly something wrong with the current state of film studies that’s not related to the actual practices within the field, but rather what material the field is engaging with.” And that’s exactly what I thought here.

The most interesting, exciting, active, popular, and engaging work in comics in the last twenty or so years has been occurring in areas like YA/all ages comics, indie comics, webtoons, mini-comics, webcomics, and manga. This obviously isn’t germane to the particular arguments that Singer will later go on to lay out in Breaking the Frames, but fact that comics studies is apparently not engaging much with these vital areas of contemporary comics (other than some instances of crossover with memoir) seems like a pretty major systemic problem that should merit some discussion. 

Singer acknowledges this in passing in the same section, saying that works outside these two general areas (as well as concerns about marginalized creators who have to this point been excluded from canon) are, “not a part of this book, which takes as its primary subject comics scholarship in its present form.” I’d argue that what comics scholarship is not taking as its primary subject in its present form is just as important as what it is.

 

Comics are Made out of Little Drawings

Here’s the another very odd (to me, anyway) thing I noted in Breaking the Frames:

This is a passage in which Singer quotes a scholar discussing Frank Miler’s The Dark Knight Returns. Again, this isn’t notable in itself, but it is notable in the context of the overall book in that it occurs on page 80–a full third of the way through Breaking the Frames–and it’s the first time artwork is mentioned in any evaluative sense.

Comics are made of drawings. That’s arguably their defining feature. And yet, the fact that comics are made up of drawings is often completely ignored and they’re discussed solely in terms of their plots–no differently really than if they were prose stories.

This has been a peculiar trait of comics academia for as long as I’ve been aware of it. It’s not wholly unsurprising given that the field of comics studies originated within academia from English, literature, communications, etc. departments. It is, though, damn strange. 

Somewhat related, I noted on several occasions that discussion would drift without any explanation from comics to TV shows or movies about superheroes and then back again to comics. In these sections I found myself stopping in my tracks and wondering, Why are we talking about Smallville or some Batman movie in this book that’s ostensibly about comics criticism?

To be fair, the latter chapters of the book engage a bit more with the artwork than the initial chapters do, but again, this tendency to conceptualize–and write about–comics as simply narrative seems to be a large holistic issue that should bear some addressing before getting into the particulars of current comics studies. 

 

Why are we Talking about This Book?

An observation of a somewhat different nature than the two above: reading Breaking the Frames really highlighted for me that comics that are discussed and viewed as important among comics fans and cartoonists, and comics that are discussed and viewed as important among comics academics form a Venn diagram in which there’s for sure some overlap, but also substantial areas that don’t intersect. The most surprising example of this for me was the amount of attention that Breaking the Frames pays to Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner

I don’t think I’ve heard a fellow cartoonist or anyone I interact with on Twitter (or elsewhere online) even mention Nat Turner in the last decade, yet Breaking the Frames concludes with a nearly fifty-page chapter on the book (which, admittedly, I mostly skimmed, having not read Nat Turner recently enough to really engage with such a granular discussion of it). This is in no way a knock on Nat Turner (I love Kyle Baker’s work); just an observation that this is one of many books which are apparently canon in academia but which for whatever reason don’t occupy the same space discourse-wise outside of academia. 

I noted as well some other interesting and peculiar apparent disparities between attitudes about comics in academia and the comics talk of more general fans/practitioners. Singer devotes a fair amount of effort to “defending” comics–and in particular superhero comics–as an art form from its supposed marginalized status. Is comics still “marginalized” within academia? I genuinely don’t know… but there’s definitely a “chip on the shoulder” vibe to a lot of that sort of discussion in the book that seems more in line with the early 2000’s than now–at least to someone looking in from the outside.

Similarly, there’s almost an entire chapter devoted to pointing out something that seems obvious on its face to me (and is acknowledged by pretty much everyone it’s come up in discussion with): that Marjane Satrapi’s drawing style is derived stylistically in a large part from David B. (who was her mentor for a while). This is apparently a matter of some contention within comics academia.

 

Breaking the Frames is Good and You Should Read it

That fact that this book has caused a bit of a kerfuffle is, to my mind, a good sign that it’s addressing things that need to be addressed. The points I raise above, as per the title of this post, are just a few “big picture” observations about the book–and are admittedly observations coming from someone well outside of comics studies. As someone who makes–as well as teaches–comics, it’s fascinating to see how people engage with work on the page. I’ve likely overplayed the “kerfuffle” aspect of Breaking the Frames, as a substantial portion of it isn’t Singer directly criticizing the work of other comics scholars, but him engaging directly with comics himself. Some of these comics are works that I’m interested in (Chris Ware’s work, Persepolis, Alan Moore’s work, etc.) and some of it not, but Singer’s writing is always interesting, engaging, and well-argued. 

Feb
14
2019

Smokey Stover, A Christmas Story, Dr. Seuss: The Oneness

So, over Christmas I was watching A Christmas Story for the bajillionth time (as one does) and noticed, in the scene were Ralphie is decrypting the message from his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring, a Sunday newspaper comic peeking out among the stuff on a table:

I took a picture of the strip and quickly posted it to twitter (as one does), completely ignoring the obvious title on the left and opining that this was most likely Dr. Seuss’s (AKA Theodor Geisel’s) short-lived newspaper strip, Hejji. The strip is in fact Smokey Stover by Bill Holman. Absent the title, though, it’s easy to understand why I might have mistaken the art for Seuss’s. That elephant is nearly identical style-wise to Seuss’s drawing style–and specifically to Seuss’s famous elephant character, Horton. Here, for example is a typical Seuss elephant:

And here’re a few examples by Smokey Stover artist Bill Holman:

You don’t even need to be a particularly keen observer of stylistic cartoonist quirks to see the obvious influence here. While I couldn’t track down the particular Smokey Stover strip shown in A Christmas Story, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that it predates 1954’s Horton Hears a Who significantly–especially if any attention at all was paid to keeping things in-period for the film, which seems to take place roughly in the early 40’s.  Here’s a full Smokey Stover Sunday page from, I believe, around 1940:

What I found interesting here wasn’t just the obvious stylistic homage (“stylistic homage” being the term we cartoonists use vs. the lay term “blatant swipe”) but that this obviously highly influential American comic strip is rarely discussed and not even collected in this, the “golden age” of newspaper comic strip collections where you can find full runs of everything from Prince Valiant to White Boy and even The Wiggle Much at your fingertips. And unlike strips such as White Boy or The Wiggle Much, Smokey Stover was immensely popular with the everyday public. At the strip’s height in the late 40’s, the titular lead character of the strip may have been the single most used figure for nose art on U.S. WWII bombers.

As with some other very popular newspaper strips of the time, Smoky Stover introduced a number of now-common phrases into common usage, most notably the term “foo fighter.” Smokey, a fire fighter, referred to himself as a “foo fighter” (one of the strip’s many bits of odd verbiage and wordplay) and the phrase was  adopted by WWII pilots to refer to night-time flying targets which couldn’t be identified–UFO’s. If you know the phrase these days, it’s likely because of Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana band of the same name.

The strip’s influence on comics, though, is curiously less apparent.  Harvey Kurtzman has gone on record as having been influenced by Smokey Stover, specifically citing it as the origin of a lot of the nonsense words that peppered MAD Magazine (potrzebie!) as well as possibly the famous visual “chicken fat” scattered around the magazine’s pages. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to find much of a Smokey Stover vein of influence in other comics… at least here in the U.S.

Interestingly, a place I really do see a possible strong Bill Holman influence is in some British cartooning of roughly the same period. If you’ve ever seen early material from the British kids’ comics magazine, The Beano, you’ll note some strong stylistic similarities with Holman’s strip–both visually and in the style of humor. Visually, the most obvious example is Beano cartoonist Leo Baxendale. Here’s one of his strips:

In addition to the obvious visual similarities, Bexendale’s work–and in a general sense, a lot of early Beano strips–share Bill Holman’s screwy, madcap sense of humor. I’ve not seen any specific mention of Smokey Stover running in U.K. papers, but there were certainly many popular U.S. strips that did, so I’d consider it a reasonable supposition that Stover may have. (And if anyone can confirm this or has specifics of where/when it ran in the U.K., please comment or email!)

So, then: why isn’t Smokey Stover a strip that’s more talked about, held in higher regard? Well, to be blunt I’d say some of it is simply that Holman isn’t a cartoonist with the same level of visual chops as folks like Herriman, Segar, etc. But also, though, Smokey Stover is part a tradition of “screwball comics” whose humor is primarily goofy and gag-based–think Gus Mager, Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross. The whole “screwball” style of humor, even in films, fell solidly out of fashion in the U.S. shortly after WWII… but seems to have persisted in some form or another much longer on British shores with things like The Benny Hill Show, The Goon Show, Monte Python, etc.

Comics like Krazy Kat, Popeye/Thimble Theater, and Peanuts all broadly traffic in humor, but they each have an undercurrent of melancholy or even occasionally the macabre that lend them a more ostensibly “serious” air; Smoky Stover is pure screwball nonsense–and I mean that in the best sense of the term.

Holman’s Smokey Stover will likely never be held up with the same lofty regard as Herriman and his like, but it’s odd how such an obviously influential and hugely popular strip seems to have been swept under the cultural rug. 

Jan
03
2019

What I Read in 2018

In years past, I’ve regularly done “Faves of 20xx” lists of various things–comics, art supplies, documentaries, etc.–that I’ve enjoyed during the year. This year, though, I managed to keep a list of all the comics and comics-related books I read throughout the year and so instead of a Faves list, I’m just going to do a quick blurb about each of these items instead. Here goes–in roughly the order I read them (other than series I read more than one volume of–those are grouped together):


 Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip – by Jove Jansson 

I’ve been reading through this tremendous volume on and off since I received it for Christmas a while back and I completed it at the beginning of 2018. For many years, the Moomin newspaper comic strip was a work shrouded in mystery and rumor, chunks of which were passed around in photocopied form from cartoonist to cartoonist. This complete collection from Drawn & Quarterly is a blessing–every strip published, including the end of the series that was taken over largely by Lars Jansson. There’s not much I can say about this strip that’s not already been said other than that it should be required reading for anyone interested in comics. Jansson’s designs for the various characters populating Moominvalley are amazing and unlike pretty much anything else that’s ever graced the interior of a newspaper. What’s most striking about this strip is that it exists at all; it seems to break every conventional rule of newspaper strip cartooning: the stories are often bizarre, the politics and messages of the stories are brazenly anti-authoritarian, even her drawing breaks the “rules” of cartooning–employing in-story elements as panel borders and the like. 

 

 Les royaumes du nord,  Vols 1 & 2 – by Stéphane Melchior and Clément Oubrerie (French)

 

I bought the first volume of this in French a while back but since then there’s been an English translation of the series. Just because I’m an obsessive book nerd and I want to have a matching set, though, I’ve been soldiering on with the French versions, one of which I read at the beginning of the year and the other of which I completed in the fall. This is, obviously, an adaptation of the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. It’s been years since I read the source material, but from what I recall this seems to be a fairly straightforward adaptation. The thing I like most about this particular adaptation is its drawing style: Oubrerie’s lose, almost impressionistic drawing style works so well with the steampunk-ish Victorian mise-en-scène from the original book. It’s refreshing to see this style of artwork employed for an adaptation like this rather than the usual North American standard neo-realistic “sword and sorcery” style that seems to be the inexplicable default for pretty much every comics adaptation of SF or fantasy work. 

 

Calamity Jane: The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary, 1852–1903 – by Christian Perrissin and Matthieu Blanchin

This is a solid comics biography that’s only slightly marred by some not-great translation problems. First off: the art is really pretty. It’s lose and animated–and the only color is a subtle sepia wash. The overall look evokes old sepia toned photographs–which I’m sure is exactly the point. The translation here, though, is a bit buggy–not the actual word choices themselves, but the fact that what must have been large chunks of French text are often replaced with much shorter lines of English text, leaving balloons with huge awkward swaths of empty space.   

 

Corto Maltese, Under the Sign of Capricorn – by Hugo Pratt

I’ve always loved Pratt’s drawing (I saw a stunning exhibit of it in Lyon not too long ago in fact) but I’ve not actually read any of it until this year. This is the inaugural volume of the recent Corto collection from IDW which wisely starts somewhat mid-stream with this storyline from a now-fairly well developed Pratt. Most of the key characters are in place here and Pratt’s mature, distinctive drawing style is on display. Story-wise, this stuff is all great fun. Corto himself is sort of a nautical Han Solo with bell-bottoms: a chaotic good adventurer and ladies’ man with a heart of gold. Aside from the inexplicably clunky cover design (drop shadow? seriously?) this is a beautiful volume and the reproduction of Pratt’s stunning linework is a thing to behold. 

 

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – by Sunny Liew

It’s impressive enough to produce just a really good comic, but here Sunny Liew has managed not just to produce a great comic but has done something almost wholly new with the medium. This is a biography of a completely fictional cartoonist, the eponymous Charlie Chan Hock Chye, whose invented personal history is used by Liew to document and comment on the history of Malaysia and Singapore. In doing so, he shows us “Hock Chye’s” work throughout his life and to do so Liew impressively mimics an array of period-appropriate cartooning styles that are instantly recognizable to anyone with a knowledge of the medium–from classic newspaper strips to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. While there are points where this conceit strains under it’s self-imposed demands–like a Pogo-esque newspaper comic that, though beautifully drawn, is weighed down awkwardly by its required political allegories–this book is an epic achievement and well deserves all the accolades it’s received. 

 

The New Mutants: Bill Sienkiewicz Marvel Artist Select Series – By Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz

I was lucky enough to have picked up a copy of this at San Diego a few years back, but only this year got around to sitting down and reading it. I hadn’t read most of this stuff since it came out, and some of the later issues I’d not read at all. Rather than repeat myself, if you want to know my thoughts on this you can read this big blog post I did about it here.

 

The Castafiore Emerald – by Hergé

Continuing on with my re-read of the Tintin series in sequence, I tackled The Castafiore Emerald early this year. This has always been my favorite Tintin book and this read didn’t change my opinion. It is, though, quite obviously a book that assumes you’ve read a lot of Tintin; the whole story is basically a farcical send-up of the usual Tintin tropes that’ve been established in the previous books in the series–and in some cases, maybe not that farcical, as with Tintin’s championing of the Gypsies in the book. This latter bit seemed to me like a deliberate statement from the author in response to some of Tintin’s more controversial storylines in the past.  

 

Spy Seal #1 – by Rich Tommaso

This is obviously just the first issue of a multi-part series, but I really enjoyed the opening chapter of the story-to-come. Spy Seal is a stylistic mashup: “funny animal” characters, an overtly Hergé-esque ligne claire drawing style, and mid-sixties Cold War British spy thriller. I’ll most certainly pick up the collected edition of the full story. (In fact, the only real misgiving I have about Spy Seal is why it was presented as individual issues in the first place–an odd choice for the audience this type of comic is likely to draw.)  

 

Valerian: The Complete Collection Vol. 2 – by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières

While the Valerian movie was apparently a huge flop, we should all be thankful that it prompted the release of this new collection of English translations of the source material. I read and enjoyed the first volume last year, but these are the first stories where the Valerian formula is really in place and where drawing-wise the characters have settled into their final designs. You also now start to get some overt political and societal commentary as well. This’d be a good volume to pick up if you’ve never read any Valerian before.

 

Hicksville – by Dylan Horrocks

I’d somehow managed to make it to 2018 without reading this classic GN of the late 90’s. While there are a few parts of Hicksville that stand out a bit as being overly-of their time, most notably the plot elements that are obvious allusions to 90’s Image Comics, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s as heartfelt a love letter to comics as I can imagine. In fact, it’s a bit of a mystery to me why Hicksville (and Box Office Poison for that matter) isn’t talked about and held in the same popular high esteem as the other big “canonical” late 90’s GNs: Jimmy Corrigan and Blankets.

 

Buddy Does Seattle and Buddy Does Jersey – by Peter Bagge

Hate is a seminal comic in my development as a cartoonist. It’s one of the first comics I read as an adult–after having moved away from comics for a while–that made a huge impression on me and I re-read it every few years. While Hate often discussed for its humor or its being emblematic of a particular time period (90’s “grunge”-era) what makes this work so rich and enduring for me is the characters and how well they’re written, especially as they grow and develop in the latter half of the series. I know it’ll probably never happen, but I’d sure love to see a Complete Eightball-style Hate collection. Hate has never been collected in its original trim size and with the latter half of the series in color, as it was originally printed–and certainly never with the original covers, ads, letters, etc. 

 

Conan le Cimmérien: La Reine de la côte noire – by Jean-David Morvan and Pierre Alary (French)

Pierre Alary is just about at the top of my list of French cartoonists whose work remains criminally untranslated into English… and sadly, owing to copyright laws (Conan is in the public domain in France, but not in the U.S.) this will join the ranks of Alary books we’ll probably never get an English translation of. Alary really gets a chance to show off here, staging some epic battles with lots of gore, lots of combatants, etc. And really, the art here is the appeal for me. Story-wise it’s, ya’ know, a Conan story–so pretty straightforward stuff. I think Dark Horse, who currently has the Conan license in the U.S., recently did an adaptation of this same Howard story. It’d be interesting to compare the two versions against the original at some point. 

 

Flight 714 – by Hergé

This is the first book in my long Tintin “reread” that’s not actually a reread: I’ve never read the final few Tintin books before now. Unfortunately Flight 714 I found to be a radical drop in quality from Hergé’s previous book–and personal fave–The Castafiore Emerald. The plot of 714 is… well, odd. About half-way through the book the protagonist basically winds up losing all narrative agency, then at the end there’s a pretty egregious deus ex machina incursion/explanation. Add to this some noticeably off-model drawings of the characters and atypical staging (what’s with all the weird, tight panels of characters’ faces?) and Flight 714 is a bit of a disappointment. On the bright side, though: Bob de Moor’s design for the plane, the Carreidas 160, is fantastic. 

 

Machine Man 1-4 – by Barry Windsor-Smith, Herb Trimpe, and Tom DeFalco

This Marvel mini-series from the 80s had been on my reread list forever and I never acted on partially because I was afraid that the series–which I loved as a child–would have aged really poorly. Did it? Well, the “futuristic” jargon is pretty painful to get through and the plot is decent but not spectacular. You know what didn’t age poorly, though? Barry Windsor-Smith’s completely mind-blowing artwork–including and especially his coloring. I’d love to see an in-depth article written about this book–specifically on how and to what extent Trimpe’s input was actually followed by BWS, and also about the technical aspects of BWS’s coloring. 

 

Petey & Pussy: Puppy Love by John Kerschbaum

John Kerschbaum is hands-down one of the funniest cartoonists working today–and he’s got great cartooning chops to boot. This second Petey & Pussy collection continues on in the vein of the fist one from 2008: the same hilarious animals-with-human-heads main characters as well as the horrific pet bird and the equally horrific old lady that owns them all. Humor is a neglected genre in contemporary comics and even in that limited sphere Kerschbaum doesn’t seem to get the attention he deserves. If you like stuff by Peter Bagge, Kate Beaton, Michael Kupperman, etc. pick this up for sure. 

 

Les beaux étes, Cap au Sud (Vol 1) and La Calanque (Vol 2) – by Zidrou and Jordi Lafebre (French)

Alas, yet another series that I started in French only to have an English translation appear shortly thereafter. Anyway… First off: Jordi Lafebre is one of the flat-out best cartoonists putting out work these days. I’d have bought these books if they were written in ancient Sumerian. That said, I definitely enjoyed the first volume of this series a lot more story-wise. Cap au sud begins with a family heading out of town on vacation. By about half-way through the book, though, I was tiring a bit of this seemingly-perfect family doing delightfully charming things… which is exactly the point in the story where a complete bombshell drops that affects everything going forward and colors everything you’ve just read. The second volume, though, doesn’t have any such conflict in the narrative and reads more as just a series of happy anecdotes. It’s all, though, just amazing to look at. 

 

Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere – by Hilary Chute

Hillary Chute is generally a very astute writer-about and thinker-about comics… which is why I was surprised by my disappointment with this book. It’s not that the writing itself isn’t good (it is, especially the section on comics and illness, for example) but there’s a vast mismatch between what the book purports to do (examine the medium of comics and what it’s well-suited to narrative-wise) and what the book actually is, which is a thorough and insightful examination of a small slice of late-90s/early 2000’s Spiegelman-adjacent creators and books. There’s no mention, for example, of Raina Telgemeier… or of manga at all. If there’s any strain of comics that’s “everywhere” it’s those.  

 

Sabrina – by Nick Drnaso

I was initially tempted to say that I don’t understand what the big deal is about this book (and it is a big deal–Man Booker nomination, tons of Best Of lists, etc.)… but I’d speculate that I know exactly why this book has gotten the accolades it has–particularly the accolades from the (prose) literary fiction crowd: it’s a story steeped in gravitas, told ploddingly, and drawn in a deliberately dry “Chris Ware meets an airline safety card” diagramatic style that eschews most of comics’ goofier aesthetic trappings.  A lot of people with very good taste in comics loved this book; it just wasn’t for me. (It’s also, curiously, a book about a woman who’s horrifically murdered which gives little attention to the actual murdered woman and instead centers on two dudes and how that affects them. I guess “Women in Refrigerators” isn’t just for the capes and tights crowd any more!)

 

The Invisibles Vol I – by Grant Morrison and various artists

This is another reread project of mine: in 2018 I started rereading Grant Morrison’s Invisibles from the beginning. I was less familiar with the initial volume than the second, which is the series that hooked me back when they were first coming out. The first volume is a bit haphazard, but in a sort of fun Grant Morrison “everything including the kitchen sink” way. I did, though really struggle with the rotating casts of artists which makes things even more scattershot visually issue-to-issue. (And no, this isn’t part of Morrison’s “master plan” to reinforce the subjective nature of reality or whatever; they just couldn’t keep a steady artist on the damn book.) Oddly, I think the best issue of this first series is the one-off “lower decks” issue, #12, drawn by Steve Parkhouse.  I’m looking forward to getting through the second volume in 2019.

 

Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe – by Cullen Murphy

This was a surprise stand-out for me in 2018–easily my favorite book about comics of the year. It’s neither analytical nor rigorously historical, but rather, a charming and heartfelt reminiscence about growing up the child of a working cartoonist in postwar Fairfield County, Connecticut, when it was an affordable suburb of NYC and home to a surprising number of professional cartoonists. A must read for fans of mid-century cartooning and commercial illustration.

 

  Judge Dredd: Cursed Earth,  Vols I and II – by Pat Mills, Mike McMahon, and Brian Bolland

Having grown up in the U.S., I read Judge Dredd via the Eagle reprints, which differ from their original permutations on two important ways: they were in color, and they were completely out of continuity. So, this is one of the first times I’ve read any Dredd extended story arc (the other being Apocalypse War by my favorite Dredd artist, the late Carlos Ezquerra). I generally enjoyed the story–it’s a solid post-apocalyptic road journey done in typical Dredd tongue-in-cheek style–but I have to admit, I often found myself flipping forward in anticipation of the next Bolland-drawn segment. Perhaps someday I’ll gain an appreciation for McMahon’s style. 

 

Arzach/Le garage hermitique – by Moebius (French) 

This is a big, high-end French language edition of what–along with The Incal–are arguably considered Moebius’s most important works. I love the ongoing Dark Horse Moebius Library, but it’s a mystery to me why these two works remain out of print in English (given that it’s Moebius, some licensing thing is to blame, most likely).  My rudimentary French was not up to the task of tackling the back-matter, which is unfortunate since there’s a ton of interesting-looking material there including in-depth analysis of Moebius’s coloring and his use of photo reference. 

 

Shiver – by Junji Ito

Like any collection of short stories, Shiver had some hits and misses for me. There were several here that I’d rank among the best/most horrifying Junji Ito stories I’ve read (“Hanging Blimp,” “Honored Ancestors,” “Greased”) and some that seemed somewhat rote, like “Marionette Mansion” and the two stories featuring the fashion model character. The commentary by Ito is sparse–usually just a page after each story, but interesting.

 

 

Nov
11
2018

On the Influence of Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko, the cartoonist best known popularly for his role in the creation of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange for Marvel Comics, died last June at the age of ninety.  His death occasioned obituaries in several high-profile publications such as this one in the New York Times, which among other things reflects on Ditko’s historical importance and creative legacy. A large part of any artist’s legacy is their effect on the art and artists that follow them–their influence–and indeed the headline from that NY Times obituary refers to Ditko as the, “Influential Comic Book Artist.”

But here’s a curious thing: the word “influence” or “influential” appear five times in that article, but in every instance other than its use as a general accolade in the headline, they all refer to people who Ditko was influenced by–Ayn Rand, Mort Meskin–not anyone being influenced by Ditko.

Compare this, for example, to the NY Times obituary of Ditko’s contemporary, Jack Kirby, who died in 1994. In just the first few paragraphs there are specific mentions of things Kirby influenced–how superhero comics post-Kirby are different than superhero comics pre-Kirby. Indeed, Kirby’s aesthetic influence on superhero comics is as ubiquitous as it is self-evident. Grab any modern superhero comic off the rack at your local comics shop and you’re looking at something that’s been shaped by Kirby’s influence. 

A casual flip through a few issues of a contemporary superhero comic, though, is unlikely to yield any sign of Ditko’s visual style. Why is this? I think, because despite the tremendous regard in which Ditko is held by most comics people (myself included) his stylistic influence–such as it is–falls outside the genre in which Ditko’s best-known work falls. If you want to see Steve Ditko’s stylistic influence on comics you need to look not at superhero comics, but at indie comics–specifically indie comics of the late 1990s. 

Of all the articles written about Ditko on the occasion of his death, only one that I read (and I read a ton of them!) addresses this: Jeet Heer’s article in The New Republic.  

As an artist, his lasting influence was among cartoonists working in the tradition of alternative comics and graphic novels: Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes.

You will certainly find plenty of Ditko homages in superhero comics–a “Ditkoesque” Dr. Strange background, a new Spider-Man costume design that calls back to Ditko’s original–but Ditko’s aesthetic sense will be largely absent. Some of that is based on history: Marvel’s early “house style” was basically a reflection of Marvel’s policy of having every artist draw as much like Kirby as possible… except for Ditko. Ditko was allowed to be Ditko, and no one was told to emulate Ditko’s style.

A lot of it, though, is that Ditko’s style is just too weird 1. His “heroic” figures are gangly and stiff and even the most mundane sequences in his stories have an air of surreality about them.  It’s a wonder he was as successful a superhero artist as he was. It’s not surprising that following generations of superhero artists weren’t looking to Ditko for their stylistic vocabulary 2. But it’s equally unsurprising that the artists who drove the 1990’s “alternative comics” movement–people like Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, and  Gilbert Hernandez–were doing exactly that; Ditko was the “alternative” cartoonist of early Marvel. 

Ditko takes heat for supposedly not being able to draw “pretty girls,” but in fact most of his characters–men and women alike–are weird-looking. Any closely-examined Ditko crowd scene is a grotesquery. You can see Ditko’s bizarre character design showing through in early Clowes in particular. 

 

And Ditko’s general world of men in stiff suits, Ronsir Zyl glasses, and porkpie hats (a look already well out of date by the time Ditko first started at Marvel) is right at home in the “Manly World of LLoyd Llewellyn.” 

Ditko’s earlier horror work is, well… horrific, and a pretty obvious influence on Charles Burns–not only Ditko’s drawing style, but his particular vision of horror juxtaposed with a placid, bland Americana aesthetic, something Burns would riff on explicitly in works like Big Baby.

 

I’d even speculate Dan Clowes’s particularly distinctive way of drawing hands is influenced by Ditko’s well-known and distinctive style of posing his characters’ hands.

I’m citing Clowes and Burns because I know their work the best, but I’m sure a Love and Rockets fan could give you some solid examples from the work of the Hernandez Brothers as well–particularly Gilbert. 

I’ve often wondered if Ditko was even aware of 90s alternative comics and his influence on them. Fans of Ditko’s superhero work were notorious for tracking him down at his New York studio and bugging him (Ditko’s desire not to be constantly badgered by fanboys apparently making him an “eccentric loner”) but I doubt Charles Burns ever banged on his door.  Most influential artists working in the superhero genre are influential largely within that genre. I can’t think of another example like Ditko–an artist whose work in that genre proved so influential in another genre that’s not just outside it, but in some ways a reaction against it. 

But, you don’t have to take my word for it! In closing, here’s a great, rejected Dan Clowes two-page appreciation of Ditko that surfaced shortly after Ditko’s death. And, hey, it looks like Clowes did track Ditko down and bug him. 


1. Kirby would eventually develop a fairly idiosyncratic style as well–to the point that DC had other artists redraw some of his characters to make them less Kirby-esque–but this was later in is career. 

2. The one big exception that comes to mind here is Michel Fife; however he’s an odd case of a superhero artist who operates largely outside of the “Big Two” publishers–and it’s telling that what work he has done for mainstream superhero comics publishers has been largely writing rather than drawing. 

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