Monday, March 31, 2008

Eastern European Matchboxes

This repository of Eastern European matchbox covers was noted on Drawn! and represents the curatorial investment of Jane McDevitt. These are lovely things. I grabbed just a few of the car covers, but there are many more of many types. Such economy!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

New Artball: Gotham Graphics

I’ve been holding this lineup for months, feeling that once we got well past the playoffs that I should just wait for the new season. Plus I’ve been fiddling with the logo guy in the margins.

I love my team. Primary selection rule: you have to be dead. You also have to bring something special to a team of illustrators. We think outside the box here in Gotham.

Batting first, centerfielder Milt Caniff, who can cover a lot of ground in a hurry, and deliver on offense with plenty of style. A terror on the base paths.

Up next and playing short, Al Parker, a wizard of improvisation—the Ozzie Smith of mid-century periodicals.

Batting third, the loping pipe-smoker, Norman Rockwell. Meticulous preparation, excellent instincts, and occasionally serious power. Guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

At clean up, who else but the thick-necked old cowboy-slash-pirate, N.C. Wyeth, playing third. Can pound the ball like nobody’s business. But travel is problematic—he gets all weird without his family around. The entourage becomes a drain. Also: do not get in a rental car with him.

Batting fifth, the surprise acquisition of the offseason, Philip Guston. A late career efflorescence as a DH-ing painterly cartoonist.

Sixth, first baseman John James Audobon, another unlikely pick up. But he’s perfect for this league! Extremely consistent, highly focused, you know what you’re getting every time up. Total pro. Very good against Baltimore, St. Louis, Toronto. And he brings a new fan base to the ballpark, although 10,000 pairs of binoculars get old.

Seventh, Howard Pyle, catching. (At first I had him at third, and Wyeth behind the plate, but Jeff Pike argued that Pyle should catch, because he’s such a control freak. Which of course is correct. So I stole the idea, but now I’m footnoting it, so that makes it okay. Right?)

Eighth, second baseman Mary Blair. Style, range, a thoroughly modern player. I like the keystone combination of Parker and Blair a lot.

Batting ninth, right fielder Harry Beckhoff. This guy is a fantasy league dream. Not the biggest reputation, but he understands the game, graceful in the field with a cannon for the throw home, and moves like a dancer. I predict key hits all over the place. A table-setter at the bottom of the order.

Pitchers. For my no. 1, who else but Robert Weaver? Scary on the mound, total command but unpredictable, brave as can be. Will throw at your head if necessary. Paradoxically, completely old school.

No. 2, Ben Shahn. This is like going to Japan for a player, but I can defend it. Shahn was a designer’s painter and photographer, and he did illustrative work all the time. Lots of pitches, lots of control. Political guy, sure, but he knows how to get the job done. Great guy to sit with on road trips. The stories! (Speaking of Japan, I thought about Osamu Tezuka, but I couldn't justify him in the illustrator category. Too bad. The guy had like 9000 hits. Zettwoch picked him up.)

No. 3, John Tenniel. Limited palette, but wow can he paint the corners. Also funny and unpredictable. Great in the clubhouse. Does great animal impressions.

No. 4, Jacob Lawrence. Integrated the profession without really being an illustrator. But those migration paintings are pretty illustrative, so we go with him, even though he probably demands a trade to Seattle. Dislikes Pyle intensely for good reason, but not as much as Weaver does.

No. 5, Dean Cornwell. Been around, seen it all. Veteran presence. They call him “the Dean.”

Closer: Thomas Nast. If Boss Tweed couldn’t him him, how can anybody else?

Set up: Jim Flora. Insane delivery. Repetitive, but really hard to track his release point. Drives hitters nuts.

Middle Relief: Maxfield Parrish. The off-field thing with the wife and the mistress in the same suite is a distraction, and he’s sort of odd, but what a curveball!

Middle Relief: W. W. Denslow. Good, but difficult to work with. Lost his deal with Frank Baum’s club because he couldn’t get along. We signed him because we like his characterizations, but he might not last.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lineup Card for Opening Day

I'll be posting my artball lineup on Monday in observance of Opening Day 2008. Here's my club, the Gotham Graphics, which will be joining the likes of the New York Deadlines, Fighting Cartoonists, and the Bridgeport Nine plus Scooter McGerk's club in a hardfought season. Get ready.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Productive Restrictions

I was born at the end of 1960. Among my earliest visual memories of media experiences are televised coverage of the Kennedy funeral procession—specifically, the flag-draped horse-drawn coffin and oblique overhead view of the cortege—and images from Osamu Tezuka’s animated television show, Astro Boy. Both can be dated to late 1963. Specifically, several images from the title sequence were emblazoned on my brain.

Recently the entire series became available on DVD through Madman Entertainment in Australia. I bought the first 52 episodes in a boxed set.

Because I have been spending lots of time with students talking about screen sequences, I got a couple of DVDs out to watch a few episodes.

First, the forced discipline of black and white does a lot for these things. The value scales are nicely controlled, and the interplay between line and shape is handsome. In fact, I am struck by the fact that some of my own graphic concerns are presaged in these early visual memories—especially line-shape relationships and value structures. Fascinating…

Meanwhile, what is it about anime and audio? The voice actors and sound designers in anime shows always drive me bonkers, and this is the granddaddy of them all. (I have a son who is fond of Naruto, the sound of which can drive me out of a room in nothing flat.) How is it possible to deliver a track that is both stentorian and infantilizing? And of course the visual style can mimic this as well, but Tezuka has a terrific range of characterization. From my perspective, the visuals are best enjoyed with the audio on mute. But I’ll also confess that the pacing is such that whenever I actually do sit down to watch an Astro Boy episode—with or without audio—I almost always fall asleep in the middle.

But that title sequence is nice and tight! Worthwhile viewing for our screen composers. Especially since the animation is pretty limited in spots.

Synopsis: Astro Boy is introduced via tight shot in front of a pulsating background, then takes off to begin his adventures. Over tbe course of several shots he fights Colosso, a giant robot who makes an appearance in Episode Two.

Subsequently he crushes a tentacled ball writhing in the sky; dives beneath the waves to take on some sea monsterish thing

battles a goofy bug-like robot with whale teeth by flying through his electro-breath all the way into his mouth, then richocheting around inside him and zipping back out [resulting, miraculously, in a series of cartoon bandages instanteously applied to said bot’s head]

after which a borer machine roars up out of the ground to drill the now-compromised robot straight through, only to be dispatched itself by our boy.

Subsequently Astro Boy punches out a row of bow-tied Klansmen like a row of dominoes; faces a battery of criminals with rayguns, plus a few more in tophats and tuxedoes, upon whom he drops a small jailhouse. Finally he zooms across town to pose for the closing shot.

I’m posting stills because I think you get a clearer sense of planning through them.

Images: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom (Astro Boy in English), 1963. The show ran in Japan from 1963 to 1966. An American version dubbed in English ran on NBC during the same period.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Snarky and the Wiffles: Student Samples

Word and Image 2 students are at work on a project I described recently. Here are two samples of the project from last year, which show shot sequencing and the use of minimal animation to tell the story. Note that the artwork is rough--the problem calls for the creation of 50 to 60 images synchronized to a piece of music with not much time to actually build the art. Both Dmitri (above) and Sarah (below) used sharpies and digital color to bang the images out. The focus is on the communication of a story in a sequential set of pictures in the manner of a film. It's surprisingly hard and frustrating at first, but these examples suggest that clarity and wit are both possible. Since the images go by quickly, our brains are focused on putting the story together, not evaluating the art according to hang-it-on-the-wall standards. Explains how a lot of film trickery works when you get under the hood...

Projects: Dmitri Jackson, Snarky and the Wiffles, 2007; Sarah Halbert, Snarky and the Wiffles, 2007.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

Back from a tenebrae service tonight. Eric Gill's capitals from the Gospels. A Deposition, and the Devil delighting in a good day's work.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Midway Airport

A few doodles from a flight delay in Chicago on Sunday.

Refueling. Waiting.

Odd vehicles on the tarmac.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Diamond Flush

Traveling again, briefly. Don't have my camera with me this time. Too bad. I photograph signage compulsively.

Image: Signage on O Street, Lincoln Nebraska, 2004.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dreamy Deco

It's pouring rain in New York. Sigh.

Going to a great city is a lot like going to a great art museum. I often use such experiences to track my own episodic interests, by paying attention to what captivates me. A high-speed browse through a museum often tells me much about where my visual sense is heading, especially in times of transition. Where I linger matters, almost in a diagnostic sense.

So this time to the city I am finding myself paying more attention to Art Deco architectural details than I recall. I stumbled into an antique dealer's shop specializing in Art Deco fixtures, and I poked around in the Chanin Building and then the Chrysler lobby. Sometimes Art Deco leaves me cold, like an empty heraldry, but for some reason it seems quite winsome this weekend.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Newest Hillary Clinton Primary Strategy

Comics & Cinema: Stories and Storyboarding

Shifting gears today. In Word and Image 2, I am leading a project which requires students to produce an animatic for an imaginary movie trailer--or, more precisely, a compressed narrative that tells a story and communicates a provocative, unresolved conflict at the end. The students select their "films" from a diverse set of titles with specified characters.

What is the problem, really? Unlike an illustration, which may present a central focus with multiple secondary foci, a filmic image must show a single thing at a single time to communicate a story. We are easily overwhelmed by motion and spectacle, so the carpentry of the story telling must be rigorously simple. We must know who is doing what where, but typically we must learn those things one at a time.

The problem really takes us to the discipline of storyboarding. Storyboarding was invented at the Walt Disney Studios as a project development technique for the extremely expensive medium of animation. The image below is a frame from a storyboard for Steamboat Willie (1928).

But the mental and creative act of visualizing a story in a sequence of images is older than that. Examples abound from the history of proto-comics, or 19th century sequential stories.

Wilhelm Busch produced wildly popular bilderbogen, or illustrated pamphlets with amusing, if somewhat dark, stories of children’s misadventure. Here is a sequence from Potted Peter, about a boy who falls through the ice and is frozen solid.

Note that each frame describes a single action. (The reading order runs in columns top to bottom, then right to the next one.)

The action goes as follows:
1) Peter sits on an icy rock to put on his skates
2) Peter attempts to get up as his pants stick to the rock
3) The pants rip and Peter topples forward, off balance
4) Peter tumbles through a hole in the ice
5) Peter clambers out of the water
6) Peter starts to run home, dripping water
7) The dripping water begins to freeze solid
8) Peter’s momentum is slowed by freezing
9) Peter is frozen in place

These images are structured like beads on a necklace. One after another, the pictures do their work.

Note also that the pictorial unit and the point of view both serve as controls. Each frame is a square of equal size. And to the extent that the “camera” moves, it does so only to keep Peter centered in the frame. This is a crucial point.

The film project described above requires one of these controls, but not the other. That is, the screen does not change size. Today’s ill-dressed newspaper comics page does not reflect the visual panache of that medium’s past. But panel scales and shapes were once highly plastic.

For our purposes, consistent scale is a blessing, since there are plenty of other things to worry about.

Back to Potted Peter’s second control: point of view. Cinematic thinking exploits camera position to communicate dramatic action. Variable cinematic point of view has become the most basic human language to appear in the modern period. We may need subtitles to understand the spoken language in a film, but not the visual language of the shots.

A profound thing, that. A hundred and thirty years ago, there were no motion pictures whatsoever. Today, the world “speaks” film.

But the development of that language took time. For our purposes, the language of comics and the language of film prove to be siblings. The adventure strips of the 1930’s provide a case study of cinematic thinking brought to comics, as well as a significant innovation in the use of that language, to the benefit of film.

One of the all-time great sequential image-makers is Milton Caniff, the guy who created Terry and the Pirates and later, Steve Canyon. Below, check out this sequence of frames from a Sunday strip at the end of 1946.

Frame 1: Terry and Jane shake hands in parting
Frame 2: Terry watches Jane walk toward the plane

Frame 3: Jane looks back at Terry
Frame 4: Overhead shot: Jane runs through the snow back to Terry

Frame 5: They embrace.
Frame 6: Jane boards the plane, covering her face.

Frame 7: Terry waves weakly as the plane takes off into the waning sun
Frame 8: Terry trudges back to his jeep at twilight.

This sequence shows shifting point of view from character to character (first Terry, then Jane, then omniscient overview, then back to Terry). There are no words in the entire sequence. We do not need them. I have been looking Caniff’s work a lot in recent months, and must say: how wonderful. What control of narrative, supported by great color and atmosphere. What a pro.

Here is another sequence that captures even more cinematic range of thought, and which serves as a textbook example of clarity, speed, and visual pleasure. Below find a page from Secret of the Unicorn by Hergé, the Belgian creator of Tintin. In this case, variable panel size helps to create emphasis and a compelling page design. For present purposes, ignore the change in scale. This page provides an especially good example of the kind of compressed visual story-telling necessary for the completion of the project. Let’s ignore the words altogether.

Frame 1: Establishing shot. We’re at sea on a big clipper ship.
Frame 2: Two guys talking. Exposition.
Frame 3: Guy in crow’s nest. (Something sighted!)
Frame 4: Captain on deck looking through telescope.
Frame 5: Over the captain’s shoulder. A ship in the distance!
Frame 6: The Captain alarmed!
Frame 7: POV through telescope: A pirate flag!

Note a number of jumps: the captain with his telescope is established in frame 4. That is one idea. We build on that by looking over the captain’s shoulder in the next frame. Without frame 4, we’d be confused by frame 5, because we wouldn’t know what to focus on. (Who’s that guy? What’s that thing? What’s the read bar at the bottom? Wait, is that a ship?)

Also: we never really see the pirate ship. We see a glorified speck, and then we see a flag. But we fill in that blank because we have already established the ship language on our vessel.

In a film, unlike a book or a comic, we can’t turn back. So the sequence and accumulation of cues is even more important.

Images: Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates Sunday masthead, December 29, 1946; Walt Disney Studios, storyboard frame with textual description, Steamboat Willie, 1928; Wilhelm Busch, bilderbogen image sequence, Potted Peter, 1864; Milton Caniff, Sunday comic panels 12/29/46, Hergé, comic book page, The Secret of the Unicorn, Volume 11 in The Adventures of Tintin, 1942-43.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Illustrators and Culture

On of the cleavage between past and present experienced in the periodical illustration field between 1950 and 1965, much may be said. On the narrow subject of professional cultures, certain things cannot be avoided. The photograph above shows a talented bunch of fellows. Many have taken the train in from Connecticut to attend the Society of Illustrators event at which this photograph was made. This is a thoroughly bourgeois group. They are making good money. They are held in high esteem. And in their work they create pictures which narrate American Dreams from an unmistakably majoritarian perspective, in accordance with the wishes of the their clients. I am fond of going to the Society but I am also alienated by it, in part because the things on its walls provide an ethnographic study of Mens Club sensibilities, 1920-1950. It reeks of yellowed privilege. You cannot get around this. It's a museum of sorts, and much of it is damning from our perspective.

Many 60s era illustrators and later recoiled from this culture, including Weaver and his aesthetic progeny. It's hardly surprising that they did, given the tumult of the time and the radical shifts in the marketplace, which came to value more pointed perspectives and techniques in a shrunken and more competitive print media landscape.

That said, it will not do to blithely set aside the work produced by the profession during the preceding period and before on such a cultural basis. In fact, I would vigorously argue the opposite. The visual output of illustrators as representatives of a majoritarian cultural segment provides an opportunity for contrast with other visual industries, including the gallery system and its products. We have ignored huge swaths of cultural material to the detriment of our understanding.

Finally the transparent grubbiness of commercial art should not be contrasted with the opaque grubbiness of high art on moral terms. Rather, these parallel systems are worthy of reflection as complicated human enterprises with intriguing points of contact and divergence. Nobody really has the goods on anybody else.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Larry Rivers & Robert Weaver: Comparanda

We’ve seen a spate of Robert Weaver-related postings and comments here at Graphic Tales, and I wanted to round things up a bit and engage a question or two about visual patrimonies in illustration. In particular, you may have read a spirited back-and-forth in comment threads about the relationship of Weaver to other artists and illustrators, both qualitatively and stylistically. This is the sort of thing that lends itself to blogging, insofar as you can explicate such claims pretty directly while steering clear of bigger problems. So let’s have a go.

The indefatigable and opinionated David Apatoff has departed by degrees from he sees as the Robert Weaver Appreciation Society.

Among the ideas that David brought forward in his initial comment about the Super Tuesday post on Weaver and Kennedy: For me, Weaver's style in the Kennedy series for Esquire largely emulated the then-fashionable work of "fine artist" Larry Rivers.

Illustrator and blogger Bill Koeb took some exception to this, citing what he saw as Apatoff’s criticism of Weaver by said association. Moreover, he added, I think you are confusing style with technique. I see similarities between the two, but also between Weaver and Schiele, Cezanne, and many others.

Apatoff replied: Bill, I didn't consider my reference to Larry Rivers to be a "jab" at Weaver. I like Rivers, and consider some of his work to be superior to Weaver's. I think it is obvious that Weaver liked him too.

So what about Larry Rivers? Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times obituary (August 16, 2002) provides a host of tasty biographical details: he began his creative life as a Ukranian-American saxophone player named Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg. He was rechristened “Larry Rivers” by a comedian in the Catskills, studied music and smoked dope with Miles Davis, learned painting from Hans Hoffman, acted in a film narrated by Jack Kerouac, and designed sets and costumed for a Metropolitan Opera performance of Oedipus Rex. Kimmelman does not oversell Rivers’ achievements as a painter, but notes that Rivers created an important bridge between the Abstract Expressionists and the Pop artists.

Grace Glueck observed in a 2005 snapshot review of River’s work at Marlborough that he was “an artist to reckon with,” with a modest qualifier: “especially in his earlier paintings and drawings.”

These are the works which David Apatoff seeks to establish as an influence to Weaver. Does this claim hold up?

Close reading of Rivers’ work in relation to Weaver’s suggests a superficial connection which may involve significant points of contact. The work that brought Rivers to prominence was a reworked pastiche of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Rivers’ painting went by the same name and was purchased by MoMA. I have not found a very useful digital reproduction to post here, but for the sake of coverage, here’s the original

and here’s Rivers’ version.

The painting is a loosely organized and somewhat campy restatement of an old tradition. It provided a bit of tweakery to the Abstract Expressionists who had come to dominate American painting, and in that regard would have provided some comfort to the emerging Manhattanite tradition of Postwar “Expressionist” illustration later squarely identified with Weaver.

The Greenbergian dominance of painting-about-paint notions of advanced art foreclosed certain kinds of careers for young figurative painters in the 1950s. Many such people became illustrators instead, Weaver among them. Larry Rivers challenged that dominance, partly through his cheeky tone, and partly through his investment in figuration. The balance can be difficult to decipher, which is why Rivers’ legacy may not be sure beyond transitional footnotes.

Like many of the people who became significant players in Pop art, Rivers invested in the creation of surfaces. I mean this both in the visual and theoretical sense. The repainted Dutch Masters labels, Camel cigarette packs, and mock-informational works that Rivers produced during the 50s through the 70s betray an investment in the idea of superficiality, which in Rivers’ case is undercut by the painterliness of his touch. The cookie-cutter cunning of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, for example, is missing from Rivers’ more wistful takes on standardization and repetition. But these are flat things, atmospheres aside. The surface of the painting doubles as the surface of the image. There is more to say about this, but the basic point stands.

More study of Robert Weaver’s career will be required to identify the touchstones of his early visual and personal investigations. But beyond the potentially inspirational example of Rivers early work, the mature Weaver is after something else.

Weaver also invested in the idea of surfaces, and did so with more than a passing awareness of Pop. But in his case, there is no theoretical engagement with flatness in the Greenbergian sense. Weaver sees surfaces everywhere, and he is alert to the cultural threat such surfaces may pose to the individual. He is eager to expose the superstructures which undergird these surfaces. All the contraptions of display and elements of signage in Weaver bear our attention. It is quite possible to subject Robert Weaver to a thoroughgoing postmodern reading. On the whole, such exercises run out of gas after a paragraph or six, but miracles never cease. In the meantime, from my perspective I think it plain that Weaver was aware of the emergence of Pop and its implications, likely would have seen Rivers as a notable figure in the mid 1950s.

But Weaver’s engagement with reportage required him to invest in spatial depiction of far greater sophistication and range than Rivers needed past a certain point. Weaver’s use of signage, reflection, printed surfaces, and photocollage suggests more than a passing engagement with the ideas running through Pop, although he may well have accessed those ideas through the process of observation and reflection that were so basic to his process. He took words and images very seriously, and he was quite willing to use them against their authors.

I will try to return to the much more significant question batted about my Mssrs. Apatoff and Koeb: how to evaluate Weaver’s achievement in the wider frame of the history of illustration. In general, I concur with the position espoused by Bill Koeb and others that Weaver was a singular figure, not just a notable one. As always, I enjoy the contrary views of David Apatoff, but think that the reversal he suspects--that Weaver's reputation as an innovator is more a political position than an aesthetic one--may in fact be true in reverse. That is, that Apatoff's frustration with what he sees as reigning politico-aesthetic habits of mind in "the Art World" has bubbled over onto Weaver. But surely he will correct me if I deserve it...

Images: Larry Rivers, Dutch Masters, 1991 (a restatement in print form of earlier works); Larry Rivers, Parts of the Face, circa 1960; Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851; Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953; Robert Weaver, illustration for Esquire, 1959; Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1952; Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964; Warhol, installation shot of same; Larry Rivers, Africa, 1957(?); Robert Weaver, illustrations for Sports Illustrated, feature on Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, date uncertain; Robert Weaver, Brief Lives, Pool Hall, date uncertain.