Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Creative Corps Ensemble Cast

A recent project provided an interesting challenge: create a group of four characters with appeal to high school students that also capture pathways in a contemporary art school. The client accepted the character concept but passed on the idea of naming them. Designer Scott Gericke and I had names for them nonetheless. They are, from left, Barry Brushstroke, Dana Designer, Freddy FX, and Sarah Sculptor.

Because I have a terrible weakness for the cheesy use of Ks, I wanted to name the group Kreative Korps. Unsurprisingly the university wasn't buying that.

I worked on this project while contemplating whether I'd call it a cartoon or an illustration. I'd opt for the latter, even though I make active use of cartooning shorthand to create the characters' heads, especially.

These images do not really capture the color on the finished poster: the yellow is really a fluorescent yellow green, and the orange is also fluorescent. The thing is pretty electric-looking. I saw the run today.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Toonistration Case Study: Hail Harry!

I am still working on some thoughts about the language of cartooning as it relates to the traditional functional and aesthetic heritage of illustration. As I have suggested, I think that illustration has its roots in reportage. Despite the significant evolution of “conceptual” (I prefer the term rhetorical) illustration embodied in the work of practitioners like Christophe Niemann, competence in the field still requires a mastery of description to achieve intelligibility.

Meanwhile, cartooning emerges from a tradition of amusement and commentary.

I am noodling over various diagrammatic notions with various axes, etc. But I think the visual tension between cartooning and illustrating can be isolated via questions of narration, proportion, inflection, and distillation.

As a result of my work with collections development where I teach, specifically in 20th century periodical illustration, I have developed appreciation for now obscure figures from that industry. One my all time favorites provides case study on the relationship between the cartoonist’s sensibility and an illustrator’s problems: the great Harry Beckhoff.

Beckhoff produced a great deal of work for Collier’s in the 1930s and 40s. Many of his most satisfying works are two-color jobs for fiction spreads. His work relies on strong theatrical staging, a designer’s sense for the distribution of shape (both positive and negative), great figure drawing, and a gift for simplification and characterization. The illustrator in him uses descriptive figural proportions and stances; the cartoonist builds essentialized heads with restricted, militantly two-dimensional means.

More soon, but in the near term, here are a few fabulous Beckhoffs with a detail or two.

Images: Harry Beckhoff, Colliers, January 23, 1937; Colliers, April 13, 1940; Colliers, January 29, 1938.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cartoon Night No. 1

I am teaching a new studio course to senior undergraduates called Character, Scene & Staging: Visualizing Dramatic Action for the Graphic Novel and Animation. Possibly an overly fancy title, I will concede. But at least it's descriptive. As part of the course I screened some animation last Wednesday evening with an emphasis on character. The poster below was designed by Mike Costelloe.

Among the films shown was Adventures of the Young Pioneers, a totally creepy Soviet propaganda piece from 1971 which contemplates village life under Nazi occupation. The pioneers of the title reference a quasi-Scouting organization which functioned from 1922 to the fall of the Soviet Union. Once the Germans show up they are assisted by a collaborationist Jew (!) who is eager to assist the National Socialists.

The pioneer kids are plasticky and frozen.

The buffoony Germans are constructed from cartoon vocabularies, and are much more interesting.

I'm willing to bet that the art director of the film had some familiarity with Hogan's Heroes (1966-1971). The black-clad Gestapo officer is reminiscent of Major Hochstetter [left, below] and a dumb, bunny-chasing Wehrmacht soldier reminds me of Sergeant Schultz.

The Pioneers film appears on a four-disc DVD collection titled Animated Soviet Propaganda from the October Revolution to Perestroika. The set was issued in 2006 by Films by Jove in association with Soyuzmultifilm Studio.

Below find a list of the shorts I presented on September 19, 2007. I will present a second night of animated shorts on October 16, 7:30-9:30 which will focus on storyboarding and screen composition. Anyone in the St. Louis area will be warmly welcomed at Steinberg auditorium that evening.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor
Fleischer Productions, distributed by Paramount, 1937
Directed by Dave Fleischer

Walt Disney Productions, 1941
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Scene 14, “When I See an Elephant Fly”

Twentieth Century Fox, 1977
Directed by Ralph Bakshi
Scene 13, “The Dream Machine”

Astro Boy
Tezuka Productions, Ltd.
English Language version, NBC, 1963
Directed by Osamu Tezuka
Episode 15, “Gangor the Monster”

Samurai Jack
Cartoon Network, 2005
Directed by Genndy Tartavkovsky
Season 4 Episode 41

Gerald McBoing-Boing
United Productions of America, distributed by Columbia Pictures 1952
Directed by Robert Cannon

Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends
Cartoon Network, 2005
Directed by Craig McCracken
Season 1
Episode 5, “Dinner is Swerved”

A Cowboy Needs a Horse
Walt Disney Productions, 1956
Directed by Bill Justice

Adventures of the Young Pioneers

Directed by Vladimir Pekar

Monday, September 17, 2007

Caricature, Cartoon and Melodrama

Recent discussions about terminology have dominated this blog for the past week or so. Let’s get back to the visual evidence, and engage the question of what has been described as the language of cartooning. I won’t rehash recent discussions. Suffice to say that an open question remains: in purely visual, stylistic terms, what is a cartoon?

Although the modern usage of the term can be dated to 1843, the visual antecedents of cartooning may be found in caricature, early examples of which are attributed to Da Vinci. The development of caricature as a medium and a market occurs in the 18th and 19th centuries, in England and France, respectively. The primacy of printing technology in this process cannot be overstated. (More on this another time.)

Caricature relies on systematic but localized exaggeration. The peculiarities of individual characters observed in life provide an opportunity to push beyond the merely odd to the emblemmatically odd. This panel from a Valentine’s Day Little Nemo strip captures this symbolic drive, which McCay references. The "chamber of horrors" gallery of potential valentines mortifies Nemo. Individual physical characteristics are emphasized for comic effect, and are associated with or assigned (via text labels) interpersonal or psychological defects. The proud woman is over-costumed and intensified; the snoop is given gigantic ears.

For those with caricaturing impulses, the drive to narrate, report or describe is overridden by a desire to represent or signify, often for moral, melodramatic, or instructive purposes, if not all three. It cannot be argued but that caricature and cartooning, especially in printed variants, have aligned themselves with editorial purposes. (The “gag cartoon,” as it is termed, of the kind seen in The New Yorker and Playboy, to cite two important historical examples, is an exception.) Rowlandson's "Transplanting of Teeth" image at the top of this post provides an editorial take on the Georgian practice of securing teeth from the lower classes for (ineffective) implantation in the mouths of the rich. The coding of victimhood is provided especially by color: the tooth "donor" (a seller, to be sure) looks like the color of death. The frivolous rich are decorated by flamboyant hairdos and engaged in symbolic vanity.

The caricaturist's gifts can be cunningly deployed in other contexts. Norman Rockwell, for example, delivers hidden caricature to add emphasis and effect to his illustration. His volumetric handling and painterly verisimilitude mask the subtle but thoroughgoing exaggeration of his characters. Rockwell's exaggerations are minute, but extremely purposeful.

The most common associations with the word cartoon today revolve around animated cartoons. This strand of cartooning took a somewhat different route, focusing on entertainment and amusement largely free of political content. The roots of the performer-cartoonist can be found in the now-remote medium of "chalk talk," a variant of vaudeville that featured a self-possessed artist and a drawing pad. Thomas Nast and Winsor McCay both accepted lucrative engagements as chalk talk performers, the latter more eagerly than the former. McCay, a true entertainer, would have preferred to spend his days in comics and animation, but was chained to editorial cartooning by the Herald and Hearst, who kept him to his contract.

Animated cartoons have been enlisted in propaganda efforts from time to time, especially in World Ward Two. Recent releases from the former Soviet Union have included state-funded propaganda cartoons. From a satirical point of view, Cold Warrior mockeries made their way into Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle in the early 1960s.

This post criss-crosses over the terrain of caricature. Sorry for the meandering path. But here is the argument I want to explore. Even if you wave off all propaganda and political satire, the melodramas of identification which are basic to fiction and intensified by the exaggerated languages of caricature remain in force in its descendant forms. I think that some of the scorn reserved for animated kiddie stuff has to do with the high degree of moral coding involved in the scripting and design. Good guys tend to be really good guys, and bad guys really bad. Likewise the tendency toward caricature in Rockwell eliminates the potential for diffidence and ambiguity, which simultaneously heightens and narrows our experience of the image. I think this is a hazard that descends from the heritage of caricature. The tension between identification and melodrama is a dangerous one. But this is as true for The Executions on the Third of May as it is for your average Rockwell illustration.

Note: this post has been substantially edited since I posted it very early this morning in a bleary state. I will be back to update an image or two and cite images more formally later.

Next time: beyond caricature and symbolic exaggeration, to distillation and abstraction.

Images:[Rowlandson, Da Vinci copyist, Thomas Nast, Winsor McCay, Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, [date]; Chalk Talk book, circa 1900; Bill Hines and Jay Ward, Rocky and Bullwinkle animation still, 1962; Bambi comic cover, [date].

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cartoony Cosmik Debris

Recently I was at my son's high school football game when the skies opened up and it poured. Some helpful soul turned to me, gestured to a stack of orange plastic, and asked, "you want a poncho?"

I laughed out loud. This question reminded me instantly of the Frank Zappa song, Cosmik Debris, in which the narrator skeptically asks, "Now is that a real poncho, or a Sears poncho?"

Truly, a question for the ages.

The ever insightful Mr. Flynn offered an earnest response to my last post on certain somewhat tiresome, essentialist definitions of cartoon.

His final statement reads thusly: But "cartoon" and "animation" are two slightly different beasts. They overlap when you speak of "cartoony animation."

Bob is correct, of course. But the specific word choices suggest the poverty of discourse in this arena. Can you imagine a serious argument about, say, the postwar novel being articulated in this fashion? Is a novelly novel analogous to a cartoony cartoon?

I am not tweaking my colleague Mr. Flynn, but rather our underdeveloped vocabularies.

Perhaps you find my recent emphasis on diction exhausting. But holy cow, we ought to be able to bring some rigor to a conversation about the visual and narrative conventions of these fields, no? Are the alternatives opaque academic jargon and sophomoric jargon?

Now is this a real discipline or a Sears discipline?

Image: Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Freak Out!, album cover art, 1966. For the record, Cosmik Debris appears on Apostrophe ('), 1974. I recommend it.

What is a Cartoon?

If the word illustration poses certain challenges due to the narrowness of meaning associated with the term, cartoon poses the opposite problem. The word cartoon seems awfully broad, stretching from animated shenanigans to concept-driven sketch with caption to certain stylistic conventions and modes of drawing. So where does it come from? I cover this in a discussion of the Danish cartoon mess of 2005-06. Below, find an entry from the Online Etymological Dictionary.
1671, from Fr. carton, from It. cartone "strong, heavy paper, pasteboard," thus "preliminary sketches made by artists on such paper," augmentive of M.L. carta "paper" (see card (n.)). Extension to comical drawings in newspapers and magazines is 1843. Cartoonist first recorded 1880.

"Punch has the benevolence to announce, that in an early number of his ensuing Volume he will astonish the Parliamentary Committee by the publication of several exquisite designs, to be called Punch's Cartoons!" ["Punch," June 24, 1843] (copyright 2001, Douglas Harper)
And for a definition of contemporary usage, here’s The American Heritage Dictionary, 2006:
car·toon (kär-toon')n.
. A drawing depicting a humorous situation, often accompanied by a caption.
. A drawing representing current public figures or issues symbolically and often satirically: a political cartoon.
. A preliminary sketch similar in size to the work, such as a fresco, that is to be copied from it.
. An animated cartoon.
. A comic strip.
A ridiculously oversimplified or stereotypical representation: criticized the actor's portrayal of Jefferson as a historically inaccurate cartoon.
Pretty minimal and non-visual, eh? No attempt to capture the visual properties of such things, aside from symbolic, humorous, satirical. These of course are not descriptive terms, but interpretive ones. “A simplified figure with an oversize head and a bulbous nose” may be symbolic, humorous, and satirical all at once, but only the descriptors tell us what it looks like. It will be up to the visually engaged to describe the underlying figural and spatial codifications that contribute to our sense of what a cartoon is.

John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy, offers up thoughts on animation and related topics at All Kinds of Stuff. Like many practitioners, he has very strong opinions about the field. His thoughts on “cartoons” are directed specifically at animated cartoons, and do not really contemplate other meanings or dimensions of the term. On July 22, Kricfalusi posed a rhetorical question that I too have been contemplating in recent months: what is a cartoon? [I tried to link to this post but it only shows up in the July 2007 archive: you have to scroll down to get to it.]

Kricfalusi (often referred to as John K, for short) writes,
No one wants to do what cartoons actually are and what they do better than any other medium. At least no one in charge. The cartoonists certainly want to make cartoons and the audience would love to watch them if they existed.

I figure it's my duty to remind everyone of what cartoons are and to come up with some defining characteristics. Now remember, I don't care if people make animation that isn't cartoony for those who like that sort of thing. But SOMEONE should be making cartoons. Let's go back to our roots.
Kricfalusi goes on to itemize 5 essential components of cartoons.
1) The Funny Drawing
2) Funny Motion. [Animation that doesn't move funny should be called "animation". "Cartoon" is a very specific type of animated motion.]
3) Impossible Gags [You can draw things that can't happen. Not in real life, or in CG animation or any other medium. So why don't we anymore?]
4) Musical Timing [All classic cartoons were timed to musical rhythms or tempos. That's why they automatically feel good when you watch them. Most modern animation is timed straight ahead and actions fall haphazardly with no definite or structural relationship to each other. They feel jerky and not as fun as old cartoons.]
5) Butt Stabs [Even Walt Disney, who is mostly anti-cartoon loves a good old butt violation. All real cartoonists think the butt is the funniest part of the anatomy and tend to do an inordinate amount of butt poking and crack exposure in their cartoons. If you are ashamed of buttcracks, you are probably ashamed to be drawing cartoons and shame on you for doing it.]

I emphasize that John K is not a scholar or a critic, but rather a committed practitioner with strong opinions. Fair enough. But it is important to note, especially for students, that these requirements do not involve any serious attempt to define terms, including, crucially, cartoon itself. The unspoken essentialist definition relies on styles and tropes from the 20s into the 40s. The exhortation to “go back to our roots” imagines a prelapsarian past in which “true” animation was produced, unlike today. This scheme of decline is a common one in craft traditions. For the record, Winsor McCay was appalled at the direction animation took in the 1920s; he regarded his early work as having established an art form, and saw it discarded and nullified by the gooseneck goofiness of the animated vaudeville which followed him. McCay’s work would not meet several of these criteria.

Later, Chuck Jones would decry the influence of UPA and the limited animation style that evolved to meet new demands for television budgets. Same basic approach, which is, in truth, a conservative sentiment: the past is better than the present. You hear the same thing from many illustrators. What’s more, the sentiment is a recurring one. William Morris, John Ruskin, and the entire English Arts and Crafts movement built whole careers on a philosophy of loss from the guild tradition.

John K has a new post up yesterday (9/12/07) which expands on some of these points, a little more descriptively, under the heading of “Quality.” His visual examples are thorough and wonderful. He really is historically minded, he knows his tradition, and his tastes are broader than they seem at first. But the mournful tone about traditional loss dominates and distracts.

From any particular point of view at a given moment in time, such assessments may or may not be valid. But here at Graphic Tales, we are committed to an empirical approach, beginning with description, followed by taxonomy. I would like to test these terms against reality, to establish their applicability.


Because ultimately I am interested in culture in the broadest sense. Various traditions contribute generously to modern graphic culture—modern commercial culture, to go a step beyond that—which is in need of explicating and understanding, especially as it parallels and gradually overtakes the high visual culture industry, in a society as thoroughly commercial as ours. So I want to push at these notions in a broader frame, to see what can be gained from it.

It's important to note that I am also interested as a cartoonist, illustrator, and designer. John K's notion of impossible action is a helpful idea. The rotational-screw golfer below is a response of sorts.

This brings the definition-of-terms festival to a close for the time being. Next time, I’ll engage a set of examples to try to establish what we mean when we say “cartoon” from a visual point of view. As I have suggested, the empirical visual investigation is likely to reveal dimensions of our common understanding that do not emerge in language.

Images: animation still demonstrating John K's "impossible action" criterion, Walt Disney Productions, Steamboat Willie, 1928; animation still, John Kricfalusi, The George Liquor Christmas Show, 2006; halftone engraving, Winsor McCay drawing the Little Nemo in Slumberland character Flip in a chalk talk lecture, circa 1910; animation still, United Productions of America (UPA), Gerald McBoing-Boing, 1952; benefit golf tournament poster, D.B. Dowd, 2007.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11

It's a beautiful day. The first intimations of fall are in the air. The sun is out, and the sky is blue. Something about the morning has been cruelly evocative of the one six years ago today, and the atrocities of 9/11 are on my mind, more so than on previous anniversaries. I am posting a series of stills from Winsor McCay's 1918 landmark animated film, The Sinking of the Lusitania, a graphic memorial to another atrocity from 92 years ago. The stills and the film are hauntingly beautiful and affecting. They're offered here as a prayerful lament.

More Vocabulary Tests

This discussion continues to be usefully provocative.

Jaleen Grove writes,
I don't actually interpret the classic definitions of illustration like this at all. I would suggest that "illuminating" is not equivalent to embellishing, nor is explicating text equivalent to being subservient to it. I think these are value judgments that have been imposed on the literal meanings by people who had stakes in not letting illustrators get the upperhand socially or economically in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
I would agree, to some extent. But my original point has to do with the limitations of the term in contemporary usage, with all the associations that are now part of its meaning. I don't think there is an Edenic meaning to be recovered. Moreover, I would distinguish between the term as a specific noun (an illustration) and its meaning more broadly as a field of activity or a discipline. I think it's mostly a workmanlike term in the first case, and a poor one in the second.

Grove continues:
The Word and Light are inextricably linked, not one above the other - the first use God makes of the Word is to define light. Therefore, the illumination of manuscripts was just as holy as the scripture. Think of the frescos in the nave of the church - they are all illumination, and not even a line of text - they were accompanied by oral tradition. From this point of view, written texts were the embellishment to the images - remember, pictoral media precedes the written. It is simply impossible to separate the two into hierarchies, no?
Wow. This argument is intelligently and gamely made! Alas, I'm not buying it as culturally descriptive in a secular society. The authority and prestige of the written word exceed that of the image. Pictures may be sexier and more emotive, but these were exactly the grounds on which Plato booted the artist out the ideal Republic. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word calls the shots. (I will return to this notion in an upcoming post on cartooning.)

Anyway, my observations concerning the shortcomings of the term are meant to set up some sustained looking at images, in part to test its applicability.

Bob Flynn writes,
Yeah, I understand what you're getting at. For me, it would boil down to whatever this new word would be...and what new pretenses it might carry. I'm probably more cautious after having done similar thinking about comics and graphic novels and seeing a similar thought path. "Graphic novel" was made popular by the publishing industry to get comics into bookstores, so the motivation is different. But the idea was to get people to take comics more seriously because the subject matter was more mature or something, even though I'm not sure that was WIll Eisner's intent when he coined it. Now "graphic novel" is a very wishy-washy term...very hard to define, except for its hierarchical superiority over the comic book.
Good comparison. As a term, comics suffers a related problem--tonal associations with humor for a word meant to describe a structural form. People have indeed been struggling with that one for a long time. I do not find graphic novel objectionable particularly. It's useful and handy. Does seem to suggest a certain scale or length, an unnecessary inference.

Images: Write What you see in a Book, (John of Patmos receives instructions from an angel [Revelation 1:9-11]) illuminated manuscript illustration, the Cloisters Apocalypse, 14th century French production; A Third of the Sea Became Blood...a Third of the Ships Were Destroyed, (The second angel blows his trumpet after the opening of the seventh seal [Revelation 8:9]) the Cloisters Apocalypse.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Vocabulary Test

Before moving on, a final word about illustration as a matter of diction. Some have questioned my impatience with the term, as if I were embarrassed or frustrated by the act of illustration itself. Am I ashamed of my own family? I think this an excellent question, and the sort of challenge that such musings ought to provoke. To which I say: no, I’m not putting on airs. I love the very functionality and utilitarian criteria that such images are subject to. Rather, my objection to the term has to do with its narrowness and simplistic connotations. I rue the fact that such a varied functional and aesthetic territory should be fated to a linguistic assignation in English that ties it to embellishment—a naughty thing from a modernist perspective—and textual subservience. I don’t really want to replace the word with some cloying alternative, which is why I used a self-mocking tone in the passage in question. I don’t ache for legitimacy. Far from it. As a critic, I just wish we had a more capacious word in English for such broad imagistic territory.

A sub-theme will emerge from these notes about language, which is that more specialized meanings have developed within the visual community for certain of these terms, and that these meanings can be isolated empirically by looking at visual examples. With luck, the incapacities and secret territories of such terms may be exposed as we go.

Image: Al Parker, advertisement illustration, American Airlines, April 1957. I love this thing, which integrates figure, settting, and costume into a fabulous rhetorical statement about the glamour of air travel. I guess you could call this a clarification or an embellishment, but that would be a funny way to start the analysis. Not especially helpful. What’s more from a cultural point of view, I’m not convinced that the exchange between Al Parker, the supervising art director for the agency on the account, and American Airlines provides the most important source of potential insight about this picture.

Five Days to Go

My animated film Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio is viewable online in a Florentine film festival (with spinach, that is) for another five days. Details here. Have a look!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Professional Labels 2: What is an Illustration?

I have been reflecting on this issue of cartooning versus illustrating. When last we visited this subject, Bob Flynn had tossed up the self-identity question: am I an illustrator or a cartoonist? The back-and-forth since has given rise to some interesting thoughts here and here and here.

I think this is a first-principle sort of problem, which requires us to ask some pretty fundamental questions. Such as, 1) what is an illustration, and 2) what is a cartoon?

Let’s start on the first, with an admittedly abbreviated answer. To begin: illustration is a lousy word, an editorialized moniker which all but identifies a given image as a primitive thought. Speaking generally, an illustration is a for instance, an example. An illustration repeats or intensifies a thought which somehow predates it.

(Sometime soon I'll explicate the wicked curveball art school meaning of the word, as in, "That looks like an illustration.")

In modern visual terms, an illustration typically accompanies a written text of one sort or another. The picture or figure provides imagistic information for passages in the text determined to be worthy of greater emphasis. Again, the assumption embedded in the word is that this text, whatever it is, precedes the image, and outranks it. It’s a small, narrow word, illustration. There are no extra folds of meaning tucked away inside it. It refuses to flex or billow. I dislike it.

But its origins are less narrow.

The Online Etymological Dictionary offers the following:


c.1375, "a spiritual illumination," from O.Fr. illustration, from L. illustrationem (nom. illustratio) "vivid representation" (in writing), lit. "an enlightening," from illustrare "light up, embellish, distinguish," from in- "in" + lustrare "make bright, illuminate." Mental sense of "act of making clear in the mind" is from 1581. Meaning "an illustrative picture" is from 1816. Illustrate "educate by means of examples," first recorded 1612. Sense of "provide pictures to explain or decorate" is 1638. (copyright 2001, Douglas Harper)

I rather like the linkage with illuminate. Throwing light upon seems like a useful idea. But even then, the tyranny of the word lurks in the wings. What must be illuminated, if not the logos, the word of the Lord?

I think the key notion for us is the secondary function associated with illustration—the assumption that the idea already exists, waiting to be handsomely clothed by the skilled (but likely dumb) illustrator. I don’t see how we get past these associations, frankly. I think the word should be replaced, but I’m not sure by what. I am certain that bicycle, cucumber, and plasma will not work.

Tomorrow or Tuesday, a reflection on cartoons. Later this week, some visual analysis of comparative examples. The usage of these words based on practical definitions and etymologies is one thing; the meaning recognizable in visual examples is a totally different affair, and exposes the fact that our common usages betray much more sophisticated distinctions than references currently recognize. Fascinating stuff. Stay tuned.

Images: W. W. Denslow, title page illustration, The Wonderful World of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, 1900; Robert Lawson, book cover illustration, The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, 1936; Richard McGuire, book cover illustration, What’s Wrong with This Book?, 1997.

Territory VI: On Method; the Limits of Biography

Several years ago, in the opening line of an essay devoted to the relationship between comics and animation, I wrote: Graphic history is littered with singularities. By this I meant that many isolated tales of distinguished careers have not resulted in an overarching story or master narrative of our parallel, vernacular art history. Winsor McCay, N.C.Wyeth, Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, etc., etc. It’s as if none of these people have a relationship to a common tradition. It’s all very here and there, so-and-so and so-and-so. Little theory has been written in the realm of commercial images, which is what it would take to bind up all this activity and material and shape it into something you could properly reflect on. Meanwhile we use a raft of terms—illustration, cartoon, fine art—that have ended up in the language but seem to have been very poorly defined for analytical purposes. So how would one begin to answer a question like the one anticipated by recent exchanges on this blog: to wit, what is the relationship between cartooning and illustration? What does it mean to “be” a cartoonist, or to “be” an illustrator?

There are of course a variety of approaches or lines of reasoning available to answer a question like this. From my perspective, these include: 1) the historical, 2) the economic & distributive, 3) the technological, 4) the cultural, 5) the stylistic, and 6) the synthetic product of the preceding, the analytic. Note what is missing: the biographical.

The anecdotal and necessarily granular aspects of the biographical approach have substituted for broader cultural reflection in this arena. Despite the considerable merits of individual works and authors, biographers do not often systematically engage the professional contexts of their subjects. In less formal precincts, what passes for the biographical is really simple fandom, which offers limited charms. For the time being, I really am inclined toward the swearing off of hortatory tales of this or that neglected artist.

Finally, the failure to develop coherent and useful frameworks for thinking and talking about this field of modern graphic pictorial culture isn’t about individuals. It’s about categories and artifacts and practices. What we have here is a failure to describe. Think about it. The world is full of fashioned images which seek to inform, persuade, activate or decorate, and entertain. Cartoons, comic strips, package graphics, advertisements, posters, editorial illustrations, matchbook covers, you name it. We’re surrounded by the stuff.

All great criticism starts with description: of an experience, a set of objects, a context. Judgments—both legal and cultural—are rendered after the facts have been established. We need more facts. We need an empirical mindset. For starters, it will be necessary to address the great corpus of commercial and functional images in the world. Not one by one, but set by set. What, exactly, do these things look like, and to what ends do we see them deployed in the world?

It may seem contradictory to call for an empirical approach while setting aside biographical writing. What is biography, but a focused investigation of a particular life in a culture? Isn’t that empirical? I guess I am suggesting that the anecdote should be shelved in favor of the analysis. Clear-headedness, please, not nostalgia or enthusiasm.

We’re badly in need of clear-headedness in these times. Can’t hurt to practice, even on vernacular art forms.

Images: cover illustration, Davy Crockett, American Hero, a Rand McNally Elf Book, circa 1965. Illustrator uncredited; endpaper illustration, Best in Children’s Books, Nelson Doubleday, 1957. Illustrator uncredited. (Thanks to Jenn Kaye); detail, American economic components illustration, Life Magazine, January 5, 1953. Illustrator uncredited.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

In recent days I’ve been the beneficiary of a link put up over at Drawn!, courtesy of Bob Flynn’s recommendation. Before that, Graphic Tales got a link from Irwin Chusid at It would seem that some are interested in a theoretical or analytical take on this sprawling realm of functional or commercial images. I am grateful for the links, and eager to keep exploring this territory. I am committed to working my way through a set of foundational topics early this fall, a series of posts defined as Defining the Territory (or simply Territory) one through a dozen or so. I will be sprinkling a mix of appreciations and interpretive riffs intermittently along the way. Then we’ll see where we are, and chart a course from there.

In light of my recent set of posts on informational images and spaces to match, here’s a fabulous Jim Flora image tasked with making a bunch of lab equipment look like the most engaging stuff possible. I love this mix of visual cunning, design acumen and graphic exuberance deployed on a mundane problem.

Image: Jim Flora, magazine cover, Research and Engineering, January 1956.

Welcome, new visitors! I’ll do my best with quality and quantity. Look for a Territory post this weekend.

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.