Friday, February 28, 2014

THE LOST VOCABULARY OF VISUAL STORYTELLING, day 1

Comics and graphic novels have gained respectability over the past few decades.  They now receive cultural awards and attract audiences that were once unthinkable. But even as their stature has grown, they seem to have lost some of the drawing ability that comics once enjoyed.

The ability to achieve a likeness, to convey subtle body language or facial expressions,  to stage complex scenes, or employ similar tools of visual communication seem largely missing from many of the most prestigious comics and graphic novels today.   Superstar comic artists such as Speigelman,  Ware, Panter, Brown, Beaton, Trudeau, Bechdel and many others simply don't speak that visual language.  Perhaps it's because they have different aspirations for their art.  Perhaps it's because they don't draw well enough to employ the vocabulary.  Perhaps those two reasons are related.

I can think of no better example to demonstrate the lost language than Leonard Starr's intelligent and graceful strip, On Stage (1957 - 1979).  Every day for the next few days I am going to focus on a different aspect of Mr. Starr's visual storytelling.   Today I would like to show how he uses the language of hands.

Starr writes like a dream, but note what his hands add to his text:

Hands wiping away a mock tear enrich the tone of the words.
This gesture of the kiss off adds a visual punctuation mark to the text.
Two hands clasping the phone tells us something about the speaker's state of mind
A dismissive and controlling wave
Starr's hands provide a separate stream of information, parallel to the text, which enhances the expressive quality of the picture.  Sometimes they run in contrast to the text, as in the following drawing where the hands alert the viewer that the character is faking his sincere speech:


But you are not likely to see these kinds of tools employed in today's esteemed graphic novels.  Many of today's artists can draw hands performing basic functions such as holding a coffee cup or throwing a punch, but have lost the ability to use the language of hands in this more sophisticated manner, to enhance the expressiveness of the drawing.

For example, contrast Starr's drawing where rubbing fingers together denotes a rogue...

...with this drawing from The Best American Comics 2010 where rubbing fingers together even to squish a bug requires an explanatory narrative:


As another example, note how even a clenched hand requires explanation with words in the recent Twilight graphic novel:


In both cases, words have to bail out mediocre drawing, rather than the drawing enhancing the words.

In the following image, note how Starr employed a hand gesture to convey that the girl is young and flighty:


...while in the next drawing (honored by the Smithsonian Institution in its 2004 Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories) the hand either conveys that the man is picking his nose, or scratching his cheek, or perhaps thinking, or perhaps something else.


This disparity in powers of observation and technical skill, and in the ability to orchestrate multiple levels of information in a single drawing, is hardly uncommon.  The drawings in today's most esteemed comics have generally become simpler, rougher and less informative.

Pulitzer prize winning Maus

Chris Ware depicts a hand to help convey emotion using his "abbreviated visual words." Ware's drawing is mediocre, but in fairness he seems more interested in the ornate architecture and design of his "symbolic typography"

There are many reasons, some of them better than others, for the simplification of comic drawings and the de-emphasis on technical skill.  Even Starr simplified his drawings in later years to meet a changed market.  Simplicity is a great virtue in drawing, but simple-mindedness is not.  We see some of each in today's award winning comics, but we should endeavor not to confuse the two.  That's why I'll be spending a few days musing about what we have gained and what we have lost as a result of this migration in comic drawing styles.




Monday, February 17, 2014

GEORGE HERRIMAN


Recently, the Society of Illustrators elected George Herriman to its Hall of Fame.  I was honored to be asked to write the essay that accompanied that award.  I wanted to share a theme from that essay with this group.
 
Born in 1913, Krazy Kat grew up on the outskirts of civilization-- in the Coconino desert and the comic pages-- where odd, delicate things have an opportunity to take root and grow, safe from the prematurely withering sneers of art critics, the punctuation rules of copy editors and the dogma of geometry teachers who insist that love triangles have only three angles.

From this unlikely location, George Herriman’s eccentric masterpiece about the love triangle between a cat, a dog and a brick-throwing mouse gained the attention of an international audience of artists and intellectuals.  By its tenth year, famed art critic Gilbert Seldes pronounced Herriman's strip, "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today." Other fans included Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, H. L. Mencken and Woodrow Wilson.  When Broadway starlet Carlotta Monterey left her husband to run off to Paris with Nobel prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, the only thing she insisted on taking was “my Krazy Kat clippings in a Chinese lacquer box.” 


Even by the low standards of illustration, comic strips were a medium with many big disadvantages and only a few small advantages.  They were crudely reproduced using poor quality materials, and delivered in frustratingly short installments to a lowbrow, distracted audience.  One of the most evanescent of all art forms, comic strips in those days weren't designed to be preserved for posterity; they served a daily function before turning brittle and yellow, crumbling and blowing away. 

Yet, in the hands of George Herriman the drawbacks of this disrespected medium became the core of its genius. 
 

Herriman’s philosophical musings were distilled into brief adventures with funny animals.  Abstract concepts were personified as cartoon clouds, flowers or lightning bolts, drawn simply to fit in small boxes.  Cosmic and unknowable events took place high atop an "enchanted mesa," where babies come from and old people go at the end of their lives. With the exception of Joe Stork who flew down from the mesa with new babies, no one ever saw what took place on top.   Herriman wisely left that to our imaginations.

Vagabond philosopher Bum Bill Bee offers some "philosophical fatuity" at the foot of the enchanted Mesa: how easily our destiny is thwarted.  Joe Stork brings us into the world, all shiny and new and filled with promise, and our parents name us with great aspirations...

...but all it takes is something as slight as a childhood nickname to deflect us from Charlemagne to a cat with the mange.  "You always almost never can tell."




The comic strip format gave Herriman the freedom to be as silly as he wanted.  He invented dialects and scrambled grammar that would never have been tolerated from a “legitimate” writer for one of Mr. Hearst’s newspapers.
 
Comic strips had no room for the longueur of philosophers or the polemics of theologians, but they welcomed the language of slapstick and puns.  Their relentless deadlines scared away anyone with pretensions to write for posterity, but they were perfectly suited for the unpretentious Herriman.

Herriman recognized that things that seem small and inconsequential might really be immense and divine.  In fact, sometimes the best way to experience immense and divine things is in small and inconsequential  increments.  Plus, it helps if they are funny.

What kind of drawing was best suited for Herriman’s peculiar content?  Seldes wrote that Herriman drew with “secret grace and obvious clumsiness.” Like many drawings that appear effortless, Herriman’s contained much wisdom and elegance.  But there’s more: a sharper, more skillful style would have undermined the strip’s open, benign spirit.

 
If Herriman followed the technical rules of draftsmanship, readers might have expected other rules to apply as well. For example, they might have expected continuity in his backgrounds, rather than surrealistic backgrounds that jumped around.  They might have expected a recurring logo, or consistent panel layouts, like other strips.  They might even have expected Krazy’s gender to remain constant (which it did not).  But Herriman’s drawings remained aerious enough to accompany his words. 
 

Ultimately, Herriman’s creation was a triumph of personality. His distinctive, peculiar nature shone through his work, unfiltered.  He succeeded not despite, but at least partially because of, his low medium. 

His ability to achieve greatness within these cramped confines should serve as an inspiration to illustrators everywhere; for this reason alone he deserved inclusion in the Hall of Fame.    

Friday, February 14, 2014

Thursday, February 06, 2014

MEAD SCHAEFFER: A CLOSER LOOK




 Mead Schaeffer (1898-1980) was one of the classic illustrators from the golden age of American illustration.  He illustrated such well known books as Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables.  He also worked for top magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan.

  

The Count of Monte Cristo from the Kelly Collection of American Illustration

 Like other top illustrators of the period, Schaeffer was talented, resourceful and dedicated to his craft.  Here are some previously unpublished photographs of Schaeffer dressing up in costumes and posing for his paintings:


from the Schaeffer family scrapbooks



If you have seen Schaeffer's work reproduced in books, it may have looked something like this, due to the printing technology of the day:

 

But if you take a closer look at the original painting, you begin to see the true nature of Schaeffer's talent:

from the Kelly Collection of American Illustration
 

 


Modern reproduction capabilities make Schaeffer a very different experience.  He is well worth a closer look.