Monday, September 3, 2007

Toonistration Round-Up

This is the first of several posts in a flurry on the issues kicked up by the concept of Toonistration. (I promised a post on this today, and I'm going to make it by mere minutes. Yesss!)

The basic idea offers up the possibility of a mystical synthesis between the aesthetic approaches of what traditionally have been defined as illustration (cue Howard Pyle and his band of [mostly] merry men) and cartooning (over to you, Otto Messmer).

From my POV the modern visual conception of cartooning should be associated with the birth of animation. I mean by this our shared associations with the term as a graphic approach to image creation. The need for recognition, simplification, and stupefying levels of repetition resulted in the development of a set of draftsman’s conventions between 1910 and 1925 or so that we collectively refer to as “cartoonish.” I think this outranks the historical fact that the term was applied to satirical drawings that significantly predate the industrial animation aesthetic. (This is a complex question, to be sure, and open to debate. I intend to devote more sustained thinking and writing to it.)

By contrast, the roots of illustration are more functional than stylistic, and are bound up with questions of reportage. By this I mean botanical, ethnographical, and medical, as well as the more obvious The London Illustrated News and Harper's wood-engraved news of the nineteenth-century world. The field “matured” into interpretive activities later on. And yes, I know that reportage is always an interpretive act. There is nonetheless a big distinction to be drawn between, say, an encyclopedia engraving of nautical knots and a New York Times op-ed illustration.

In the Toonistration challenge post, I invited submissions that bridged the spirit of the two approaches, comically summed up by Dan Zettwoch as “eyeballs and sweat droplets” for cartoonists, and “cross-hatched pirate scenes” for illustrators.

I received two entries, each launched from one side of the divide. John Hendrix offered a sketchbook drawing of a horse, and Bob Flynn provided a sadsack with a dead mouse. Zettwoch claimed that his own entry was “too stupid to scan.”

Let us consider these two images. I will declare plainly that I am an admirer of both composers. But the appeal of both resides in the clarity of approach basic to each. John Hendrix can draw bug eyes like the ones on this horse every day for the next two decades, but he will always be an illustrator’s illustrator, as fundamentally concerned with draftsmanship and reportage as a person can be.

In addition to his approach to drawing, he is also a skilled visual rhetorician and narrator, as his editorial work suggests. Above, a spread from his upcoming biography of Abe Lincoln for young people.

Bob Flynn, as he has observed, should probably call himself a cartoonist. This image suggests that no “probably” belongs in the sentence. Like Hendrix’s bug eyes, Flynn’s frenzied hatching does not transport us (say) to the Planet David MacAulay. This is a cartoon, and Bob Flynn, God love him, is a cartoonist. He uses the language with knowledge, confidence, and purpose, as this (functionally speaking!) illustration suggests. The perspectival complexity of this image combined with the bug-eyed gang does indeed move toward Toonistration. And how about the mileage and atmosphere he gets from a two color palette! Subtle and punchy at the same time.

I am deeply grateful to my two entrants. Both will be receiving some excellent Ulcer City swag as soon as I produce some. Not sure when that will happen, but somehow it seems that drinking coffee out of a mug with “Ulcer City” emblazoned on it would be just right for late night studio denizens like these fellows. Better than a fruit basket, or a bobblehead doll. (I know for a fact that Hendrix is a Yankees fan, though more deeply devoted to the Cards, his National League club; Flynn is a Bosox man. All of this would complicate the bobblehead selection process.)

I will also say this: I am planning a totally fabulous World Series event here at Graphic Tales. Super high quality cultural metaphors and art-sport hybridity. Just you wait. Look for the excitement once the playoffs start. Sharpen your pencils and prepare your beer run.

Okay, last item on the subject of Toonistration. (For now, anyway: I am exploring this territory in my own studio, as this snippet from an illustration project I'm working on at the moment attests. A detail of "Barry Brushstroke." I'll show more later.)

If the illustrator provides the Hegelian thesis, and the cartoonist provides the antithesis, who provides the resolving synthesis? Can it be any surprise that the visual polyglot Zettwoch comes through? Although he was too lame to enter the contest, I did find examples aplenty of the Toonistration concept in Won’t Be Licked! The Great ’37 Flood in Louisville. I will be posting on this work in more detail soon, but wanted to show a page as part of this discussion.

Note that the figurative language runs from the sure-handed and physically descriptive to the extremely simple to the point of silliness. The men in the boat are positioned in believable positions (except for the kneeling guy in the middle, who isn't of much help) and are engaged in a complicated physical act that we immediately understand and accept. It's a variation on a deposition scene in the art historical tradition, and depositions are notoriously complicated to stage. Meanwhile the architecture is soundly researched, and the two-story house beyond the brick apartment building is quite satisfying as a drawing of a building. And yet the clouds which stretch to the horizon are comically mannerist, and are akin to the scrunched accordion eyebrow on the narrator's face in the foreground. It's a peculiar and weirdly satisfying blend of reportage and willful descriptive caprice. The extended sequence of spreads that tell the story of the flood are, as I say, worthy of a longer reflection that I hope to get to soon.

Images: Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan, Felix the Cat, from a drunken spree in which Felix imagines all manner of transmogrifying hazards; John Hendrix, sketch,Horseshoed, and book illustration, Lincoln, both 2007; Bob Flynn, sketch, Man or Mouse? and illustration for Improper Bostonian, 2007 and 2006 respectively; sketch, 2007; D.B. Dowd, Barry Brushstroke, illustration detail, 2007, Dan Zettwoch, Won’t Be Licked! The Great ’37 Flood in Louisville, in Drawn and Quarterly Showcase #4, 2006.

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