Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas

Bearing down on Christmas. Please accept our best holiday wishes from GT.

Image: D.B. Dowd, South Carolina Church Lot, from a graphic story I'm working on. 2007.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Joe Deal & Artball

My to do list includes the final wrap up of the Artball lineups that were sent to me around the time of the World Series. This week, I promise. I had a wonderful exchange with my old friend Joe Deal about the concept. He was pondering a Gallic-inflected History of Photography lineup. Alas, my laptop meltdown devoured the exchange, and I've only just realized it. Drat! Perhaps I can coax a resend from him. He winkingly provided a hilarious Francophone take on Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

Fact is, a manager compiling a serious History of Photography lineup using Americans from the second half of the 20th century would have to give Joe Deal serious consideration. He hits for power and average. He's precise--plays the game it was meant to be played. He designs beautifully and thinks rigorously--a true switch hitter (shown as a lefty above). I've inked him in at the hot corner, which is one of several places he could play. These days he's lost a little mobility, but he can still DH. I see a heroic Kirk Gibson at bat in the 88 World Series against Eckersley--the guy could barely walk but he parked it. Same Deal. As it were.

Below are several images from Joe's Beach Cities series from the mid-70s. Above is a single image from his Topos folio, which was a documentary project associated with the construction of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I had craftily arranged with Betsy Ruppa, my dear old friend, expert printer and Deal spouse to email me some of Joe's recent work, a mission in which she was sneakily complicit, but this too vanished in smoking circuits. So now I'll have to ask.

Making his baseball card and looking at these images again have focused my thoughts on Joe and Betsy. So I say on behalf of more than a few: your old friends in St. Louis are thinking of you this holiday season...

Stanley Fish on Aesthetics

On one of the NY Times blogs yesterday Stanley Fish offered some comparative description of a new film, an old TV show and an art opening--with some harrumphing tossed in for good measure. His harrumph is a cousin to my complaint about the hot country radio format and the experience of viewing contemporary art that I expressed a week or two back. It's worth a read, even if it skirts close to the edge of the long established grumpy-at-art writing genre. Like most of us, he's best describing and reflecting upon the things he likes. He argues for directness and artistic engagement with the quotidian details of life, and responds less well to showiness of a certain sort:
"...Although randomness and chance are themes of this...exhibit, there is nothing random in either the concepts or their implementation."
Fish's objection to these highly crafted attitudinal stances in otherwise underplayed artworks is related to my objection to what I referred to as "artistic positioning."

In support of Professor Fish's views, I offer up a Stuart Davis still life [which typically requires almost no pretext on my part, as he is one of my favorites] from 1924.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Mitchell Report Illustrated

I recently acquired a variety of pulp magazines for research purposes and was delighted to discover this hilarious illustration triage job, which also put me in mind of a certain document...

Blogging was light last week, and I hope to make up for it in the next few days.

Image: Cover Illustration Tearsheet, Astonishing Stories, March 1942. A Popular Publication, Toronto, Ontario. The illustration is uncredited, although the inside front cover explains that "...the cover and story illustrations...are created and painted by a group of outstanding Canadian artists." The damaged cover has been lovingly if crudely restored with magic markers on a separate sheet inside.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Aristotle and Comics

As classes are wrapping up I’m reviewing student work from the semester and evaluating my own performance as a teacher. One of the things that turned out well this semester was a new thought experiment for young visual composers, especially those exploring the graphic novel and animated film.

Ambitious (and long-lived) primary sources rarely fail to produce meaningful learning for students. In this case I returned to Aristotle’s Poetics, an important text from my own undergraduate education.*

The Poetics is an incomplete set of lecture notes from a disquisition on the subject of tragedy specifically, and drama more generally. One would struggle to identify a more influential text on theater, the context in which I originally encountered it as a student. By contrast, studio art education does not engage the Greeks but for art historical round-ups of red-figure vases and figure sculpture even though Plato’s distrust of images and image-makers has reverberated through the centuries. (A pity, really, that fundamental concepts in the history of ideas do not generally make their way into studio education. Periodically I will address deduction and induction [and Descartes and Bacon] as modes of seeing and knowing to a roomful of student illustrators and designers. Typically they look at me like I am completely crazy.)

Aristotle’s contribution, like that of all important critics, begins with description and proceeds to evaluation. His work to complete the former task begins with basic definitions of tragedy and contrasts same with other forms, like lyric poetry. Aristotle goes on to identify six elements of tragedy, which refer to the creative building blocks of the form. They are, in descending order of importance to A.: plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle.

Plot is the causally-connected series of events that drive the story. Character requires no explanation. Thought refers to the ideas addressed by the work, and can be extrapolated into concept for contemporary purposes. Diction refers to the speech of the characters, music (elsewhere translated “song”) applies to the melody and rhythmic structure of the thing [I prefer the more formalist take of rhythm] and spectacle, lowest of the elements for Aristotle, refers to what we see: the visuality of the experience, and especially dramatic events—e.g., storms at sea.

I posed the following problem to the group: setting aside Aristotle’s rankings, which prize story above all, which of the elements of drama correspond to your interests, and knowing that, how would you choose to heighten those values as you compose graphic stories and works? Choose two or three.

It’s certainly possible to identify implicit interests in the careers of others. Milt Caniff and other serialists emphasize plot; Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and Bob Kane (Batman) are all about character; Charles Shultz stressed thought, primarily via character, and Chris Ware has a strong conceptual bent. Diction is harder; I’m not certain who the graphic novel equivalent of David Mamet would be, although I am partial to Seth and think he writes well, but I think that may be too general. Ware applies very directly to music, because his work is rhythmic and structural. And spectacle? The king of same would be Winsor McCay.

I think this is an interesting exercise. I am planning some short graphic stories. It has helped to identify my three most important elements as character, diction, and spectacle, with special affection for the last.

Images: Bob Kane, Sunday Batman Strip, 1946, panel on Two-Face; Chester Gould, roster of villains from Dick Tracy strip; Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan page; Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, New York Herald, 1905.

*at Kenyon College, in Gambier Ohio, a splendid if isolated school and locale.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hot Country Proto-Fascism

An odd thought of the sort that one typically doesn't write down: while I was in the car driving to and from Ohio for Thanksgiving, I did as I tend to do when permitted by my family, which is to sample a broad range of radio stations along the way. Oftentimes I prefer the radio to premixed music of one sort of another, for the illusion of connection to others. The magic of AM radio late at night is difficult to beat, when you pick up a station four states away. Very dreamy.

At any rate, I listened to about 15 minutes of country music (which is not really country, but "hot country," or pop music sung by people with Southern accents and silly names like names like Rascal and Faith). I am fond of actual country music, which celebrates adult ambiguities and engages moral questions without fully resolving them. But this junk comes as prepackaged sentiment, and worse it aligns itself with coarse woodgrained majoritarian impulses: religious faith is good; children are precious; rural people are more authentic than city people; love is forever; parents are wise; simplicity is noble; and a mishmash of stuff about flags and eagles. The producers and songwriters and performers self-consciously position the artwork in a cultural and political context. You could call it proto-fascist, what with all the God and country and family stuff. Too much. And then it occurred to me that I am annoyed by hot country music in exactly the same way I am annoyed by a great deal of contemporary art, insofar as much of it engages in positioning before the fact. You know how you're supposed to feel; you know what ideas have been approved.

For students of expository prose: please note that here is an excellent example of writing on a general topic without benefit of examples--common among lazy editorialists--which deservedly annoys alert readers. I will work on citing actual songs and objects another day. For now I'd like to thank the blog format for having midwifed enough irresponsible opinion to make this seem at the least typical if not egregious. For now anyway, I've articulated that modest notion that flowered briefly on Interstate 64 West of Louisville, Kentucky on Thanksgiving Day 2007.

Image: Uncredited cover illustration, Rangeland Romance, January 1948. A Popular Publication.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Four-Color Puzzles

I have some wrapping up to do on a number of fronts here at GT, which I promise to address presently. In the meantime, here are some images which capture the old crude charm of multi-plate printing in the days before cheap four color and no-brainer separations. The illustrator Joseph Low, who died last February at the age of 95 (Steve Heller's Times obituary available here; registration required) produced hundreds of illustrations for the Rainbow Dictionary, published in 1947. I love these things. Very carefully reasoned as form and color statements.

That said, wow! Different era. Many entries make this plain, but none better than the unfortunate fox. We've grown quite a bit more sentimental since the days after World War Two, when no editor at the World Publishing Company saw fit to strike a straightforward pictorial description of an animal caught in a steel trap in a work intended for children. It's a tough world, kids.

Meanwhile Low's jumble of a fair (top) seems urgent, jangling and witty.

Images: Joseph Low, illustrated entries for "fair," “trains" and "trap," Rainbow Dictionary, World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1947;

Friday, November 30, 2007

On Purposive Images and Analytical Separatism

Jaleen Grove has jumped back into the conversation about commercial or purposive images versus art images. I had suggested that art and commercial images have distinct cultures and better to treat them differently for purposes of cultural analysis. Jaleen objects in very serious terms:
It is correct to say that the gatekeepers of "high art" are "right" to keep out the "low", according to their own tradition. But if one persists in keeping art and illustration separate, one persists in this classism, which prevents a real inquiry and evaluation of both underdogs and elites, because it conjures up all the oppressive prejudicial thought that relegated things to the "low" and "high" in the first place. In fact, the boundaries of art are being constantly negotiated by museum curators, boards, and the public, because this categorical divide is so shaky and, quite frankly, untenable today. This is partly why "art history" is becoming "visual culture studies".

So to me, cake decorating is indeed art. I cannot divide art from artistic (defining it here as "art-like"). Taking as a hypothetical example a particularly excellent cake, it is comprised of skill and personal expression according to the same formal properties and social properties that Michelangelo, Rodin, Odilon Redon, Norman Rockwell and any other creator ever used: colour, volume, shape, line, symbolism, appropriateness, charm, talent, innovation, and personal meaningfulness for the maker and/or patron. There is neither art nor the artistic, but rather _objects made using aesthetic principles_. Some are for eating, some are for contemplating - these are different, but equal, purposes.

I'm trying to treat all images as purpose-ful, to restore a discourse of what is active in all image-making, see what they do socially, in terms of whose interests they serve, what silent tasks they perform. If we pretend "art" has no purpose then we stay blind to what it is doing as a status symbol, as a political voice, as interior decoration, as a theoretical statement in itself. If we pretend illustration/cartooning is not art (ie, that its aesthetic properties can be dismissed as secondary), then we stay ignorant of how it "clicks" with the spirit of the times, how it arrests the attention of its audience, how people identify with it, how it achieves appropriateness, how it manipulates emotions and thought, in short, how it performs its priority of good communication.

Well argued. Yes, it is possible and may be valuable to apply overarching analytical processes to all images to see what kicks up. And yes, Art with a capital A does engage in a sort of special pleading about its own status, based primarily on habit and momentum at this point. And yes of course it is all historically contingent and made up.

All that said, there is an enormous cultural and institutional history in play here. I have observed such histories at work in both studio and art history academic contexts. They are extremely powerful contraptions--not in the conspiratorial sense, but as a matter of massive financial and habitual inertia. I have spent too much time arguing for inclusion in the face of indifferently privileged cultural players. It's exhausting, it's insulting, and finally, it's wrongheaded. I don't want to be included; I want to be left alone to practice my craft and build audience. Design departments and cultural studies encampments (as distinct from art history) tend to be more hospitable districts, although there are exceptions. I do think that art history will prove more durable as a discipline and resistant to visual culture studies encroachments than Jaleen suspects. Finally I think my arguments stand on the merits: the instrumentality of purposive images does distinguish them from disinterested ones. Certain ambiguities in certain settings cannot, in my view, obviate this foundational insight. To be sure, more close arguing in more formal settings than this blog will be required to satisfy Ms. Grove and others who may object to these contentions.

And yes, the world is big enough for separatism and universality, so I will look forward to more argument and application of other methodologies to these objects.

For the record, the aesthetic properties of purposive images provide some of my favorite pleasures in life.

Image: Package design, New Shinola Scuff Armor for white shoes. A product of Best Foods, a division of Corn Products Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. Circa 1960.

Robot Medicine

Above, a late-in-the-process version of an illustration for the Washington University medical school holiday card, focusing on the school's increasing investment in the use of computerized mannequins in medical education. The robot turned out to be a real challenge--due to the green color, he kept looking like a wounded soldier. I ended up pushing toward an Ozzian tin man. Thanks to Mr. Denslow, 107 years later.

More posting later today.

Images: D.B. Dowd, holiday card illustration (will post final version with interior illustration later), 2007; W.W. Denslow, "This is a great comfort, said the Tin Woodman," The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Chicago: George M. Hill Company, 1900.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In the Cultural Garage

It’s been a bracing interlude here at Graphic Tales, what with competing theories of visual culture vis-à-vis art being hashed out in real time, yet on the basis of long reflection. Stay tuned for more.

In the meantime, I thought I would post an edited version of an essay I wrote for the introductory Modern Graphic History catalogue, published weeks ago at Washington University for the launching of the enterprise. We are looking to build collections and program. I have been invited to join the American Culture Studies faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences, which means that aside from my studio responsibilities, as a joint appointment I will be in a position to work with graduate fellows in popular visual culture scholarship. Thus I post this by way of invitation, both to collectors and potential students.


We live in a commercial culture. Many of the words and most of the images that we encounter on a daily basis have been fashioned to some commercial purpose. Images in particular are pressed into service for persuasive, informational, and entertaining ends. Cartoons, comic strips, animated films, illustrations, package designs—these visual artifacts make claims on our attention, and we may be happy to grant them, in part because strong examples provide visual pleasure and a slice of zeitgeist to boot. The timely, winsomely crafted, and cunning work of commercial art may deliver intense pleasure—not unlike a hit song heard before it crests in popularity. Popular art delivers the ultra-now, the super-here. Often, over-exposure or simple datedness follows, and such works are consigned to the garage, literally and figuratively. But later, reconnected with lost contexts and seen afresh, they provide the frisson of frozen history.

As variant forms of pictorial sales literature, these images don’t lie. Unlike works of art in the standard philosophical sense, which often aspire to timelessness, commercial images are always busy selling something—an item, an experience, a heinous stereotype—to somebody. That is, Art tends to be on review, in the parade; Commerce is typically off working the crowd, hawking treats. The academic disciplines of Art and Art History have often tended to eschew commercial images for just these reasons—their alleged lack of self-awareness, their alignment with corporate interests, their money-grubbing.

Since the advent of the anti-aesthetic in modern art, dated to the despair of World War I and embodied by Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp who famously offered a “readymade” urinal as a work of art, high visual culture has flirted with mockery of the entire artistic project. There is a well-scrubbed elegant modernism, to be sure, orderly and utopian. But Dada, the evil twin of modernism, introduced systemic ambivalence into art. This ambivalence has created confusion about criteria. What makes an art object qualitatively good? How can you tell a lousy piece of art from a really great one? What if the art doesn’t want to be “good”? The diffidence engendered by these developments has eaten into the audience for high visual culture, and may have helped to create today’s boom in popular forms—graphic novels, vinyl toys, illustrative artworks—distinguished by surprising levels of connoisseurship

Commercial practitioners and their audiences operate in narrower contexts. The illustrator strives to make a smart, attractive, appropriate picture. The cartoonist works to tell a satisfying story in a graphically compelling way, using an established format. The animation director does the same, using a screen instead of a page. In all cases, the evaluative criteria are widely available and shared: clarity of conception, strong sense of design, inventive presentation, effective execution. The focus on qualitative criteria and explicit consideration of audience—of the customer base, in effect—has helped to create large and lasting audiences for these artforms, even if those forms have not been systematically, or even substantially, engaged by the academy. Illustrators and cartoonists speak the language of the cultural moment because they must in order to do their work, whether the audience in question is a broad one—say, middle-class American women circa 1950—or an oddball sliver of a market, like adolescent boys with a taste for neo-medieval fiction.

The traditional charge that commercial images lack self-reflexivity—that they fail to signal awareness of history, or acknowledge the existence of convention—does not hold up. In fact, the opposite is true. A lack of historical literature beyond straightforward chronicles has driven commercial image history underground. Cartoonists especially have worked to implant the history of comics and cartooning in their work, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They are largely the keepers of a history that others have ignored. And the cultural self-awareness of certain animated shorts, feature films and television shows can scarcely be exceeded. Work in all of these areas has unfolded in a parallel relationship with non-commercial art practice, most provocatively in the period associated with the development of visual high modernism and its commercial variants and contributions, especially between 1940 and 1960.


Modern Graphic History is our coinage. We seek to name and unify a gaggle of things in that cultural garage, to provide a context, a place, and a mode of inquiry that sees the intersection of art, technology, culture, and economics as an arena for the study of modern visual culture.

Washington University possesses the right mix of organizational and intellectual resources to realize these ambitions. The interplay of the cross-university American Culture Studies faculty, the College of Arts and Sciences including the departments of History and Art History, the Center for Humanities, the Visual Communications program in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, and the Department of Special Collections provides a rich mixture of resources. We are actively creating relationships with similarly engaged museums and study centers around the country.

Finally we see a bright future in this under-considered but extremely significant area of cultural production, and we are honored to find our place in that effort. We invite the participation of students, scholars, donors, collectors, artists, and other interested parties.

Image: R.F. Outcault, "Buster Brown" comic reprint in Buster Brown's Antics, 1903. The Brown Shoe Company and Washington University are in conversation about bringing the Brown Shoe Archives to the Modern Graphic History Library, where they will provide a wonderful opportunity to study the development of modern merchandising and cartooning, among many other things. The deal has not been finalized, but the company authorized us to mention it in the MGHL catalogue as a developing story. An enlightened and generous move, on the company's part. I have my fingers crossed; I worked with the collection in curating a show in 2004, and it is fabulous resource.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Last Week's Comments & Response

My diagrammatic offering of late plus other musings have prompted some comment that I would like to address. This is the obvious benefit of blogging, insofar as the exchange of insights and perceptions should, at least in theory, advance the discussion.

As a preamble, I would like to make the argument (as an apology in the classical sense for these recent assertions) that all good criticism begins with description. The world of commercial or purposive images has suffered greatly from a lack of description, both from the exalted precincts of Art and the mean streets of Commerce. We use words like illustration and rely upon shared definitions when few exist. The thing to which we refer grows obscure, because the language form itself serves as a scrim upon which assumptions and biases are projected. So I shall persist in these attempts to pin down language and patterns of thought, because clarity will resist us until we have some first principles established. Prior to such establishments, we will amuse ourselves with biographies and anecdotes, but we will lack a proper discipline to advance.

On to our commenters, an accomplished bunch.

I have encountered some resistance to my attempt to divide the tradition of purposive image-making into two great branches: illustration and cartooning. Certainly I have tossed out these ideas in relatively under-articulated form, so lacking a robust essay to support them, I recognize that I am vulnerable to charges of over simplifying. More on that in a moment.

Bob Staake, who certainly represents a synthetic perspective in his own work and career, writes in an email:
interesting way of breaking down cartooning versus illustration, but you're making such broad generalizations here. both art forms are incredibly nuanced and there are many cartoonists who incorporate an illustrator's point of view i their work while others view their doodles as nothing more than hieroglyphs intended to push forward a narrative story. same true with illustrator who work from a more "cartoonish" perspective, or even through the role as graphic designer. i think part of the problem in analyzing an art form in this manner is that it tends to come out saying a cartoonist does this, an illustrator does that -- and in the real world, it's just never that tidy and neat.
I take Bob's point. But I think we can identify purposes and patterns of thought that do amount to distinct traditions, and I also think that distinct value sets are embedded in those traditions, which I will explicate in a more formal setting to come. But for the time being, if we accept the argument that the presence of nuance and complexity in particular works or ouvres foreclose the possibility of sustained analysis resulting in meaningful categories, we also accept the unserious status of these forms as they are currently engaged, or not engaged, by cultural critics and scholars. I am a purposive image-maker, and I know the nuance to which Bob refers, but I am also a writer on these subjects, and I don't accept that because it's difficult to draw distinctions that we should shrink from the task.

Meanwhile, the persuasive and indefatigable Jaleen Grove offers a series of insights. Most significantly she takes me to task about using functional and purposive as de facto synonyms. I take the point, and acknowledge that the shared noun and verb forms of function add to the confusion. So I am exploring the use of purposive as the decisive modifier, and so far I like it quite well. So thanks.

Meanwhile, Jaleen adds in response to my assertion that such images (illustrations) are not art in the standard philosophical sense:
I'm not sure what there is to fear about considering the "artistic" in illo. So long as we treat of all images as communicative and have a pedagogy of how to cope with the slippery slope (which we seem to be developing right here and now), I think all visual creators have something to gain from it. Trying to keep art and illo apart seems futile at a time when the two are converging in practice (although not in artscene marketspeak articulations - I have an essay on this at

The art/craft divide is a false one, that for a century or two has led to nothing but confusion and misery over all the exceptions. They are in fact absolutely unstable and arbitrary categories - the dialectic is brilliantly critiqued by Raymond Williams in his book Marxism and Literature. But I think you will disagree with me, since you seem to have a firm idea of what art is!
There's much to engage there, but I will restrict my thoughts to this notion that I may have something "to fear...about the "artistic" in illo." Not a matter of fear, but of clarity. First of all, artistic and art are not the same: birthday cake decorating is often artistic, but rarely art. But let's assume that the issue is Art, not its more promiscuous adjectival offspring.

As with M. Staake's objection, the diversity of contemporary forms and burgeoning complexity makes it more important to be clear about antecedents and analytical tools, not less. And the modern foundations of what we call art in an academic sense--that is, what art museums and art historians and the professional officials of art organizations mean when they use the term--can be traced to Immanuel Kant's concept of the beautiful as outlined in Critique of Judgment (1790) and elsewhere. Aesthetic objects do not have purposes. Purposive objects have purposes. Thus purposive objects are not art objects. If this seems terribly reductive, I will be eager to hear a better explanation for the undisputed fact that art museums do not collect works of illustration and cartoons except in rare and localized circumstances, and that ilustrators and cartoonists do not appear in standard art history texts.

The assumption in many discussions of illustration by illustrators and their boosters (and boosters they typically have been--not critics, for exactly the reasons outlined above) has been that art scholars and officials are wrong and narrow-minded. But what if their policies are in alignment with art theory? What if they are right within that framework?

If I am guilty of having a "firm idea of what art is," I will add the obvious point that since art is a product of culture, its outlines and status are negotiated in various times and places. My "firm idea" is based on the cultural practices of a profession that goes by that name. Shall I ascribe these facts to bad faith and hostility, or simply to an indifference borne of philosophically inscribed limits? The latter is the simpler and more useful explanation.

I will add this, to be expanded upon another day: we are further ahead to define purposive images as non-art in the Kantian sense, because a) they are, and b) a parallel culture, with its own rigor and significance, is waiting to be created for the more open-ended analytical world of cultural history.

Finally, David Apatoff, a productive and insightful blogger, and great resource for illustration history and informed appreciation, comments:
I am a little surprised that you suggest the hey day of women's magazine illustration ended in 1955. That's before Bernie Fuchs... or Bob Peak even got started. It is before editors and art directors such as Mayes, Ermoyan and Gangel began devoting double page spreads in oversized magazines to illustration innovatively presented.
I was less careful in my language than I should have been. I did not mean to say that periodical illustration broadly speaking crested in those ballpark years ending in 1955, but rather that women's magazine fiction illustration did so, and I would grant another 5 years to 1960 without objection. But the leading edge of periodical illustration shifted to visual journalism after that time, most notably in the visual essays that ran in Esquire and Sports Illustrated, a landmark example being Robert Weaver's essay for Esquire on Jack Kennedy's presidential campaign in April 1959. The Boy-Girl School of periodical illustration did not survive the decade, except in an exhausted form.

Image: Norman Rockwell, Double Take, Saturday Evening Post cover [citation forthcoming].

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wishing You a Visual Cornucopia

Lots of comment and traffic in the last few days, with many provocative observations and good challenges. I will look forward to taking up some of your excellent thoughts following turkey and travel. In honor of the day, I am posting an illustration of a turkey I produced several years ago as part of an enormous life sciences project for children.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Image: D.B. Dowd, Wild Turkey, gouache and prismacolor, 2005.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Magazine Fiction Illustration: Drawn & Shuttered

Saturday I spoke about women's magazine fiction illustration as a subset of illustration, for purposes of a case study of sorts. One of the directions I sought to explore was the value of illustration--that is, what did it provide to its viewers? The heyday of the form ran from approximately 1930 to 1955.

I looked at the downmarket versions of women's magazines to find an answer to this. What could you get for less money? All versions of the genre, whatever the price point, featured a battery of fiction (or alleged non-fiction) stories about women and their adventures or misadventures. The lower the price point, the more sordid the tales.

I wrote about this last summer in the context of the Al Parker exhibition at the Rockwell, which is now here in St. Louis at Washington University's Kemper Museum. To recap, quoting from my essay Abstraction in (dis)Guise: Al Parker, Fiction Illustration, and Commercial Modernism in the Ephemeral Beauty catalogue:
As a general question, fiction illustrations seek to entertain by staging scenes to enliven the text. But Parker himself wrote dismissively of mere arrangements of figures with complimentary shapes and contemporary props. And strictly speaking, the positioning of characters in dramatic displays does not require an illustrator at all. Indeed, downmarket women’s magazines stopped with the photo shoot. The June 1951 issue of Life Romances, a typical publication of its kind, features “non-fiction” articles describing the misadventures of wayward women. The story “Bride of Fear” uses a poor imitation of a Parker illustration layout with display typography and a pair of photographic cut-out figures, each on the phone: the compromised bride-to-be, and the creepy blackmailing lout from her past, armed with a highball and a grin. The photo credit for these and comparable images throughout the magazine goes to Trend Studios, an outfit billing substantially less than a Westport illustrator with a swimming pool. Understandably so: Ladies Home Journal sold for a quarter a copy in 1951; Life Romances went for fifteen cents.
This time around I dug a little deeper and found some great stuff, especially this True Story magazine from 1940, which featured really elaborate photo shoots and tinted prints to spin its tales. How's this for a tour de force of public romantic distress?

I am especially fond of the image below, which sports the following high quality caption lower right: "We stood there, looking at each other, while an eternity seemed to pass. And somehow I knew that whatever it was I felt, Marion Lomax felt it, too." Somehow??? Is that a clarinet in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Images: Al Parker, "Marriage is for Martyrs," Ladies Home Journal, April 1953; Covers, Ladies Home Journal, April 1953; My Romance, September 1951; True Story, May 1940; Second spread, "Ripe for Loving," My Romance, September 1951; True Story magazine, a McFadden Publication, May 1940, page 20-21; True Story, page 29.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Brief Note on the Primacy of Pictorial Function

Checking in post-symposium. A good time was had by all. We made an audio recording of the thing, which will be podcast and/or posted as a transcript. I'll provide some highlights presently.

In the meantime, I would like to engage some comments courtesy of Jaleen Grove in response to the post of my evolutionary chart for commercial images. I quote her below in italics:
So for me, it doesn't make sense that you call illustration "interpretive" (yes!) but then say the message/content PRECEDES it - how can it? It is not a message or content until it takes the final form as an illustration (data and text might really actually precede... there's a nuance for us; I don't think we can treat all four terms as synonymous).

And so.... this leads me to qualify the idea that illustration is occupied with reportage, explication, didacticism, etc. If all illustration is indeed interpretive, then all illustration is creative and theoretical and even personal, and therefore it cannot help but be _expressive_ as well as didactic. And it is the expressive aspect that drives stylistic and aesthetic qualities, which I would suggest illustration is ALSO occupied with, equally; qualities that, while they help the didacticism, actually operate in excess of the message too.
I willingly concede that a list of primary purposes cannot hope to include all attributes of an individual work, let alone a creative enterprise. But why should it be expected to? The challenge before the field ia lack of analytical discourse. My aim here is to articulate some basic analytical language to frame discussion. I don't think it's debatable that illustration is a responsive activity. A text, a unit of content, a required subject is presented to the illustrator with an expectation that a tailored interpretive thing will come back. That this process can be collaborative, that tracking it can be complex, that the resulting product may be in some way "personal" or "expressive" does not change the function of the image: communication in the service of the larger work. I would argue that function must be separated from style. The insistence upon illustration being personal and expressive has led us into the blind alley of "Hey, this is art, too!" Illustration may be artlike, but it is not, in the philosophical sense, art. The distinction may be unwelcome, but better to be clear than not.

The last point will require more explication. More soon. Thanks for the comment and engagement. Keep it coming.

Image: T.D Skidmore, fiction illustration in Collier's, October 17, 1931.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Commercial Images: An Evolutionary Scheme

A while back we had a roundabout discussion about the term illustration and its limitations. Bob Flynn and Jaleen Grove both pushed back a little against my impatience with the term, and the supposed tyranny of the word which I decried.

I have been thinking about the traditions of illustration and cartooning a great deal, in part because, as I have noted, that discussions of same have tended to be more biographical than analytic. And by thinking about the derivation of the term, the field of activity as conventionally defined and especially the values that illustrators consistently bring to their work, it has occurred to me that Bob and Jaleen were correct. It is what it is. Illustration, I am coming to recognize, must be seen as a fundamentally interpretive art, much like theatrical direction. The text or message or content or data does precede the making of the picture. Yes, there are gray areas, but in the main there is little evidence to defeat the position that illustration is occupied with reportage, explication and re-presentation. It's typically didactic.

Frustrated by the lack of a larger narrative in which to locate genres, careers, and achievements, I have been working on visualizations of the development of commerical images. This week I have blundered into print with one such attempt: Commercial Images: An Evolutionary Scheme, a two-page infographic that occupies a central spread in the new Modern Graphic History Library catalogue, out this week. It posits two basic strands in commercial image history: illustration and cartooning, increasingly intermingled but distinct.

The graphic runs across the top of this post. I will be eager to field queries, objections, etc. It's a jpeg, so will break down a little when you magnify it. If you want a pdf, contact me and I will email you one. Content copyright DB Dowd, 2007; design by Mike Costelloe; art direction by Sarah Phares.

Freudian Artifact of the Week

Al Parker, 1959. Cavities, protuberances, and a jack o'lantern vagina dentata. The Parker show Ephemeral Beauty opens here on Friday. It looks great in its temporary modernist box home at the Kemper Museum.

Mostly recovered from computer disaster, hustling for this weekend's events.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Alien Computer Attack

My computer melted down today. A week before the Modern Graphic History Symposium. Excellent timing. Sigh. It could take a few days to get back up and running.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Fighting Cartoonists

Courtesy of Dan Zettwoch. A formidable line-up, by any standard. I especially like the late-career Japanese star who hobbles on to DH. This lineup wins the contest for most quickly submitted, too. Under 12 hours.

More soon...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Peterson Prints

Recently I posted several images by the artist Todd Peterson, and some have expressed interest in his work. Minnesota-born, he works in Kansas City where he lives with his wife. His website is

Image: Todd Peterson, Rabbit Maranville Goes to Heaven, 2005.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


I will be somewhat swamped for the next ten days to two weeks, so will be blogging less. The upcoming launch events for the Modern Graphic History Library will occupy a good bit of my time, as well as few other projects.

I'll work to post the Artball results this week. I think you'll enjoy them greatly.

Wrapping up the final text edits and a few other items on Visit Mohicanland, from which these images are taken.

Images: D.B. Dowd, So Pump it Yourself, Plate 5, Visit Mohicanland; Valley of the Plants, Plate 8, Mohicanland. These are three color linoleum reduction cuts, meaning that the images have been produced by progressive cutting and printing of a single block.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Nothing Lasts Forever

The image above is a recently finished print by Todd Peterson, an artist, baseball historian, and monastic screen printer. These things have hundreds of colors on them--I've seen them in production. Can you imagine a seriagraph with relief passages? It's true. He works on them for months and months. The print, But Who will Remember the Buxton Wonders, refers to an African American baseball team in the briefly prosperous mining town of Buxton, Iowa. Todd writes, "When the mines went bust in the early teens, so did the town and team - virtually overnight. Five years later not a vestige of Buxton remained." Botticelli's angel and Giotto's saint make appearances, as do Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth (who is prostrate) and Dizzy Dean (who is on his way down). Finally, "nothing lasts forever - not art, mining towns, ball teams, or alas, the countries they played in."

Artball Submissions Due Today

GT Readers: I have some excellent artball lineups in my possession, and look forward to posting them soon. The deadline is today, and I will receive submissions through 5pm CST. I have been asked whether I would accept lineups made with filmmakers or dancers. I say, why not? The exercise of the analogic muscle is the same, and we'll enjoy them all. I will be filling out my own card today with illustrators, having assiduously avoided reading line-ups built with same.

Brian Rea, illustrator and art director of the Times op-ed page is visiting Wash U today, and will be lecturing tonight. Maybe we'll thrust a lineup card at him and get his take.

In the meantime, Messrs. Flynn and Dunlavey: are you so stuffed with self-satisfaction in the aftermath of the Bosox championship run that you cannot rise to the artball challenge?

Image: no illustrator credit available, Pearson's Magazine. May 1911.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Modern Graphic History Symposium

Washington University in St. Louis, where I work, is gearing up to launch the Modern Graphic History Library. The mission statment of the MGHL reads as follows:

The Modern Graphic History Library is a new collaborative effort of the Washington University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and the College & Graduate School of Art, part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

The Modern Graphic History Library acquires and preserves distinguished works of modern illustration and pictorial graphic culture to promote sustained academic consideration of those materials. The collection includes artists’ working materials, sketches and finished artworks—from book, magazine, and advertising illustration to graphic novels, comics, poster design, pictorial information design, and animation.

The library is being launched through a series of public events on November 16 and 17, 2007. In several weeks, in other words. Please help spread the word to people with interests in the history of illustation, especially, since the symposium will address it directly.

Here are the details.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Highlights from the Modern Graphic History Library
5:30 – 7p Opening Reception, Ginkgo Reading Room & Grand
Staircase Lobby, John M. Olin Library. This exhibition will feature
selections from some of the many collections that are part of the
Modern Graphic History Library, and will run through January 13.
Call 314.935.8003 by November 13 to RSVP

Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women's Magazine, 1940-1960
7 – 10p Opening Reception, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
This exhibition presented by the Kemper Art Museum will run through
January 28. For more information visit
or call 314.935.4523

Saturday, November 17, 2007
An Art of Aspiration: Periodical Illustration and American Visual Culture
9a – 4p Symposium, Steinberg Hall Auditorium

9a Coffee
9:30a Offset Aspirations: Image-Making for Periodicals, 1900-1960
D.B. Dowd, Professor of Visual Communications

10:30a Panel Discussion
Anxious Significance: the Culture of Illustration

12p Lunch

1:15p Mid-Century Magazines and Postwar Aspirations
Wayne Fields, Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor
in English; Director, American Culture Studies Program

2:15p Panel Discussion
Periodical Illustration and the Study of American Culture

3:45p Wrap up discussion & final remarks

While the symposium is free, registration is required. Please email or call 314.935.7497 by November 13. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit

I will have more to say, including offering snippets from the inaugural catalogue publication, over which I (and others) have been sweating bullets the past several weeks!

Image: Sarah Phares and Scott Gericke, Modern Graphic History Catalogue image grid. Visual Communications Research Studio, Washington University, 2007.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Friday Salamagundi

My modest reflections on American Indians and visual culture are just that--modest. For a more thoroughgoing read of native issues, stereotyping, and contemporary visual culture created by and for Indians, check out Rob Schmidt's excellent blog, Newspaper Rock:Where Native America meets Pop Culture. The blog is named for a rock face in Utah, near the south entrance to Canyonlands National Park that has been covered with graffiti over hundreds of years. I photographed it last summer, but I can't seem to locate the images. Rats.

Instead, I've posted a wigs-meet-the-natives extravaganza, courtesy of Dean Cornwell. This mural, titled Treaty of Lancaster, may be found in the Detroit Athletic Club. Cornwell painted it in 1936. The mural commemorates the 1744 deal between the Iroquois and the British in which the former ceded land west of the Alleghenies, which helped set up the French and Indian War. Which bears on Detroit I'm not certain how, beyond the obvious fact that Deh-twah became Dee-troyte.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Artball Fall Classic

Okay, here it is: the Graphic Tales Fall Classic Artball Derby. Above find a lineup card with a choice of four clubs: the Illustrators, Cartoonists, Graphic Designers, and Photographers. The challenge is this--develop a lineup drawing on your knowledge of the history of one (or more) of these four disciplines. You need an everyday lineup, a four-man (or -person) starting rotation, a closer, a setup guy, and a middle reliever. American League rules: there's a DH. No National League snobbery.

You have to download the card, print it out, write on it, scan it, and email it back to me at

Entries due November 1, which is the scheduled date of World Series Game 7, should it go that far.

The general concept of this game was introduced yesterday in this space. Of course you could play this game with chefs, TV correspondents, or composers--it depends on a body of specialized knowledge and a geeky enthusiasm for applying it in a new context.

Expert judges will review the entries and post the best examples.

Chief Wahoo Exacts Karmic Penalty; Sox in 7

Lose the Chief Wahoo logo immediately. The World Series will be off-limits until the Chief has moved on to the underground economy, where he belongs, if anywhere. That (and poor pitching from the no. 1 and 2 starters) cost Cleveland the series.

Image: Chief Wahoo figure with neon tracing, once mounted atop Municipal Stadium, Cleveland. Stadium razed in 1996. Sign moved to the Western Reserve History Society in the University Circle district, on Cleveland's East Side. Contextualizing narrative presented on placard next to display. Figure approximately 15 feet tall.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Artball Napkins

About a dozen years ago, after a long unpleasant day at work, I repaired with my colleague Ron Leax to a neighborhood bar to unwind. As it happened, The Terminator was on the tube, which seemed just right somehow, and we alternated our attention between Ahhnuld and a spontaneously generated parlor game which required the assembly of a baseball team with figures from art history. The whole process unwound over several hours, and it was hilariously satisfying. I saved the napkins and stuck them in a file marked Artball. My foray into the informal realm of web-based publishing has provided just the reason (and the format) to dig them out.

[As an aside, analogic thinking provides one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching in a studio model, because one is constantly faced with new material that must be unpacked and retranslated into a digestible form for the student. It's a blast. It's also a valuable form of knowledge. You can know something by analogy that you might not get another way.]

The analogy required in this case involves grasping the requirements of a position--e.g., a first baseman or a closer--and applying it to a knowledge base in an unrelated field: a roster of artists across time and place. Of the lineups Ron and I assembled, I am especially fond of several line up choices:

Henry Moore as a first baseman. Who is he, if not the Boog Powell of modernist sculpture? Steady, solid average, lots of power, not so versatile. Slow.

Bernini in center. Sculptor, architect, master of dramatic handling and showmanship, a bit of a hot dog, fleet of foot. Fabulous choice.

Velasquez at short and Raphael at second. Excellent keystone combination: athleticism, brains, finesse.

Duchamp as a closer: who knows what he'll throw?

Back soon with a Fall Classic Artball contest.

Robert Weaver ALCS Game 7 Special

For those who live in the Venn Diagram almond shape that represents the overlap of Set B [the set of all baseball fans] and Set G [the set of graphic history aficionados] I offer two Robert Weaver images in the minutes before the first pitch of Game 7. The first is an outrageously great drawing of Mickey Mantle tossed off with charcoal while doing research on assignment for Sports Illustrated in 1962; the second is tearsheet from the visual essay as it appeared in print.

I'll post more of these fantastic sketchbook drawings sometime down the road; they and a great deal more Weaver material are in the Washington University collections, which were donated by the Weaver family, for which we all should be forever grateful. The sketchbook is an absolute knockout. It was given by Robert's brother Fritz. I will never forget the day that he showed it to Jeff Pike and me in his apartment in New York. It was (and is) a revelation of sharp-eyed reportage, as the drawing of Mantle suggests. The SI feature appeared in the March 5, 1962 issue, and was titled "Spring Training: Fresh Starts, New Hopes."

Stay tuned after the game...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Indian Summer Roundup: Wahoo Meets Herbie

The blogging has gone a little slack in recent weeks, mostly because I am working on a big project that I will be eager to share very soon--some good news from the popular visual culture front.

In the meantime, here are a few thoughts following up the Graphic Tales Chief Wahoo seminar of the last ten days, ably improved and extended by our first-rate GT commenters. To review, the discussion began here and resumed here.

For the record: I haven't previously noted the obvious fact that the Cleveland Indians are not the only major sports franchise to be named after the people who were here first. In baseball, naturally there are the Atlanta Braves, previously of Milwaukee (1953-1965) and Boston (1912-1952). [The last time the Clevelanders won the World Series, in 1948, it was an all-native contest between the Indians and Braves, repeated with the opposite result in 1995.] The NFL includes the Redskins and the Seahawks, the latter notable for being an Northwest Indian artifact, rather than an actual person. The artifact thing has promise--the Fabulous Thunderbirds? Hockey has the Blackhawks, and college football is awash in Indians--the Seminoles and Illini coming to mind quickly. I am sure I am leaving a few out--I invite corrections and addenda.

My old friend Todd Peterson, a very talented artist, baseball historian and deep romantic, offers some reading: "for a balanced and insightful view of the whole Wahoo controversy, I would recommend The American Indian Integration of Baseball, by Jeffrey P. Powers-Beck, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2004. Todd is working on book about a Negro league team from St. Paul.

If I can get my mitts on one of Todd's beautiful screenprints in a jpeg form, I will post here.

UPDATE: See print below.

Rob Dunlavey will be in a good mood this morning, as Josh Beckett dominated the Tribe last night. Rob, a highly regarded illustrator, reports from the front line of the Natick, Massachuestts mascot wars. The Redmen are under siege, as described here in a Boston Globe article. Below, Rosita Andrews, also known as Chief Caring Hands, offers the perspective of the Praying Indians, the tribe native to Natick, as reported by The Metro West Framingham News. Caring Hands offered up the possibility of changing from the Redmen, which was thought offensive, to the Red Hawk Men, which was not. I foresee a new Marvel Comics title set in New England.

Let us pause to note that the estimable M. Dunlavey has singlehandedly brought the focus of our attention and the American League Championship Series back to Massachusetts. Briefly, I hope.

Brian of Shelf Life clothing (based in Cleveland, no less) provides a paleface antidote to Chief Wahoo: a 100% cotton, 110% ironic, Cleveland Caucasians tee shirt. Very stylish. I'm gonna get me one.

Along with the above mentioned Todd Peterson, I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska from 1986 to 1989, which bears on this discussion in two ways. As a graduate student in printmaking--which now strikes me as a borderline ludicrous disciplinary choice, but who knew then that digital technology would render printmaking and photography antiquarian activities, though in truth, the former had long dwelled in Amish country--the printmakers and photographers would race to Bill's Saloon (alas, since razed) on Fridays following critiques for pitchers of beer and hours of longboard. Longboard refers to a tabletop shuffleboard game played in bars; you slide metal disks called "quaits," lidded by red or blue plastic to distinguish teams, along a narrow hardwood table. At any rate, the longboard in Bill's was ruled by the team of Percy and John, whom we aspired to beat. John was a bespectacled accountant, pleasant enough, nondescript; Percy was a big Omaha Indian who threw a quait with terrifying velocity. And Percy wore a Chief Wahoo shirt on most Fridays. Go figure. These images live varied lives.

The second reason I mention Lincoln has do to with a second mascot, who comes as close to the idea of Team Caucasian as you can get: Herbie Husker. He varies between a blonde and a brunette, but in either case as shown here, the total effect is sort of like watching Astro Boy in Oklahoma! It's unsettling. There's a bright golden haze on the robot... You spend three years looking at Herbie and you begin to appreciate the fact that Chief Wahoo, racist though he be, is darn well-designed. Forced to make a choice, I'm with Percy.

Images: Exhibition case, Milwaukee Braves, 1953-1965, Wisconsin Historical Society, 2003; Todd Peterson, The Aviary, 2005 [?] screenprint; Eric Wells, news photograph, The MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Massachusetts, January 9, 2007; Political Map, State of Nebraska, The New International Encyclopedia, Dodd Mead and Company, New York, 1908; Herbie Husker, University of Nebraska Mascot; Osamu Tezuka, still from Astro Boy title sequence, Tezuka Productions, 1962.