Monday, July 28, 2008

Habits of Mind, Retarded Taxonomies

I have been repopulating my studio walls with new inspiration, and I hope to offer a series of posts on what I'm looking at, and being inspired by. (Eck! Ugly prepositions sticking out of the end of those phrases, at and by like spines on an anenome. Sigh. As one says sweatily in a rec-league game: my bad.)

Here's a PSA: Milton Caniff is a genius.

I recognize that this discovery is a little late, since Caniff was lionized long ago as one of the midcentury greats, and is by now serious old hat several times over. As a visual matter, I find it odd that Caniff is classified as a cartoonist, as surely he is: he served as president of the National Cartoonists' Society, and was feted repeatedly as a leading practitioner of the cartoonist's art. But here's the problem. He draws like an illustrator. He concocts stories like an adventure writer, and is in that sense a cartoonist--he generates his own content. But in every other respect his approach to image-making is based on an ideology of non-fiction, which is finally a hallmark of the tribe of illustrators. Cartoonists operate on the rules of comedy and caprice; illustrators embrace the constraints of fact and fidelity. Caniff's airplanes are well-researched, his costumes reliable, his narration utterly plausible in the context of a World War Two pacific theater "adventure." Caniff knows his material well enough to pass muster with the servicemen who became a key part of his audience. This makes him an illustrator in spirit, if not in name. (But we all know he's a cartoonist.)


The misclassification bugs me.


These inconsistencies of category and nomenclature betray a lack of clarity concerning fundamental critical issues. Like: what is a cartoon? What is a cartoonist? The first question may be answered commonsensically, at least as far conventional understanding takes us, even though these ideas should be subjected to review.

The second query is an issue of self-identification. If Caniff saw himself as a cartoonist rather than an illustrator, he should be taken at his word. To a degree. Certainly he could have been honest and mistaken. Indeed, critically speaking, he could well have been wrong--that is, if a rigorous engagement with the question suggests an answer which can be shown to diverge from Caniff's self-conception. People are wrong all the time, often about basic things. The intentionalist fallacy stalks the grounds, especially after nightfall...

At any rate, these questions have prodded me to work toward a series of essays designed to create a meaningful taxonomy of commerical visual artifacts. More on that someday down the line. But in the meantime, I am happy to celebrate Caniff's accomplishments. I understand there's decent biography on him, which I'd like to get my mitts on. (There it is again, the dread preoposition sticking out from an otherwise smooth surface of acceptable sentences and knitted paragraphs.) I'd also like to spend some time with Steve Canyon.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Testing 123 Testing 123

Preparing to get started on a cycle of illustrations, having spent the last year or so working on a methodology based on vector translations of loose sketches. But recently I've been drawing onsite, and suddenly the act of drawing and painting seems non-negotiable. Working on a revised approach, still shape-based, but using black line and a key drawing sensibility to build an image with gouache. This was a quick test today, dashed off to see how various edges and marks would hold up. Not much as a composition or a drawing, but useful anyway. Digesting...

Monday, July 21, 2008


Have been focused on academic writing for the last eight weeks or so. Getting ready to get back to drawing. Thought I'd post a few drawings from May. The car interior and the doctor's office both involved waiting. I was trying to draw surreptitiously in the waiting room, but failed. The guy looked unhappy. The woman looked like she might throw up.

Redrawn head on the guy from back of page.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Barry Barry Quite Contrary!

[UPDATE JULY 15 2:00 CST. Welcome to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish readers, and also to Drawn! readers. Thanks to Andrew and Jaleen for the links...]

I haven't gotten my copy yet, but I am looking forward to having a chance to review this week's New Yorker, both for Barry Blitt's controversial cover as well as Ryan Lizza's article about Senator Obama.

For those of you who have not yet encountered the huffing and puffing about "offensiveness" [from both campaigns thus far, plus a raft of commenters on Democratic netroots sites--Huffington post is a 4500+ the last time I checked a few minutes ago] the shocking saga goes like this: Blitt, an illustrator with a caricaturist's gift for funny exaggerations, both conceptual and visual, did this week's cover. It shows the Obamas celebrating in the Oval Office, she in guerrilla-militant garb with a automatic weapon, ammo belt, and resplendent 'fro; he in Osama-wear. They are doing the fist-bump. An American flag is burning in the fireplace, and a portrait of Osama Bin Laden hangs over it.

The picture is, in short, a spoof of kooky-malevolent right wing fabrications of looming Obamanian national betrayals, etc.

Why is this offensive? What is it with this word, offensive? Who ever said you get to tumble through your days without encountering a point of view that mocks your own, or which, in this case, mocks the views of your opponents by holding them up to the light of day, but which also might possibly be misconstrued by an undecided cocker spaniel after several drinks?

Magazines do this sort of thing. Especially opinion magazines. It works better for selling issues than setting small type on a colored background. Have you ever seen Foreign Affairs at a subway stop newsstand? Below, a hit job on Chuck Schumer in National Review. (Illustrator credit unavailable.)

This controversy, which I am certain will be extremely short-lived, is an excellent example of the visual-cultural illiteracy of a great many people. I do not wholly blame them. If cultural history or art history courses actually spent some effort engaging the subject areas of cartooning, illustration, and visual rhetoric in social and political history, perhaps we could contextualize these things a little more successfully.

[UPDATE JULY 15: For new readers, Graphic Tales has devoted editorial attention to the visual-cultural aspects of the campaign as things have progressed through the season. Most particularly, the racial dimension, especially in the aftermath of the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha is covered here.]

So let's review. Immoderate, exaggerated, provocative visual-textual "speech" is what cartoonists, satirists, and cultural smartasses do. Sometimes they gore the other guy's ox, and we think they are hilarious. Other times they gore ours, and we are not amused. But for God's sake, that is the cultural work that they perform. And in this case, the voice of the publication lines up with the spoof being offered. That is, this is the cover of The New Yorker, not the Weekly Standard or the National Review. It is implicit that the editor(s) and publisher of The New Yorker are in rough alignment with the political values of the Democratic Party. The magazine's content and pattern of visual satire as played out on its covers make this plain, especially in the David Remnick (editor) and Francoise Mouly (art director) era, although it bears remembering that Remnick argued in support of the Iraq War, but recanted in light of later revelations. (Also recall that a lot of people fit in that category.)

So The New Yorker is a left-oriented but independent editorial voice. It also happens to be the only national magazine in America which continues to rely on illustration and cartooning to present its cultural vision. The cover of The New Yorker is the best gig in American illustration today, a fact which has made this dispute possible. Bully for them, I say! (Full disclosure: I did a few illustration projects for the magazine several years back, when I was pursuing editorial work. David Remnick personally killed my last job for them. But the guy is plenty brave, if you ask me--he rowed upstream on Iraq at a cost, and he publishes challenging work like this. Hats off.)

Meanwhile, back to the image. I'm guessing that they decided to go with this cover concept pretty late, because the image is a little thin for Blitt. Meaning his work always has a light touch but can be quite well developed. This piece is light in tone and touch, but not fully realized. Michelle's figure--especially waist and legs--is rough. He probably had to bang it out in nothing flat. That's a clue, I think, that they must have debated the idea pretty significantly in the editorial suite.

Would the same image have a different cultural meaning if it appeared on the cover of the Weekly Standard? Okay, would it have a different meaning if it appeared on the cover of The New Republic? Yes, in both cases, but not so different that it'd be completely beyond the pale, either.

I don't read the Weekly Standard, but I do read about it a little, insofar as I like to track opinion journals and their blogs. I have seen Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol on TV from time to time, and I read Kristol's Times column, though increasingly less often. I do not have an interest in the Standard. But if they ran the same cover I imagine they'd have to do it in a Just Kidding!! sort of way, as if they too were spoofing right wing perceptions while disingenuously hoping they'd stick. (Of course Blitt would probably not work for the Standard, and they don't hire illustrators, anyway.)

By contrast I do read The New Republic. They are often more hawkish than other liberal opinion journals, particularly as regards Israel, but they are certainly aligned with the Democratic party. They could run the same cover, and without a doubt have run some pretty aggressive ones. Two come to mind. One, last year, featured a menacing-looking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a sort of vampire, with (presumably nuclear-tipped) missiles for teeth. The other, shown above, provoked allegations of misogyny: Hillary as a Hysteric.

Here's the bottom line, folks: political speech is a rough business, and satire is a protected field, whether the satire goes after facts or perceptions of facts.

Speaking of which, and given the mention of Iraq, how about this scene in Team America in which Kim Jong Il feeds Hans Blix to a shark? It's a hilarious moment in the movie, primarily because it involves puppets, forbidden foreign-accent humor, and big dollops of sheer ludicrousness. Of course Kim Jong Il has undoubtedly caused the deaths of a great many people in his country through corruption and fanaticism. He is not a funny person. But giving him a musical number that sounds like I'm Rohn-ry, So Rohn-ry (Lonely, So Lonely) makes him funny at his own expense.

Meanwhile, American political history provides instructive precedent.

Thomas Nast practically hounded presidential candidate Horace Greeley to death in 1872. Greeley argued for pulling troops out of the South, thereby ending Reconstruction five years earlier than what actually came to pass. Nast editorialized against him mercilessly. The cartoon shown above "accuses" Greeley of murdering blacks to win an election. [Of course there can be no disputing that the end of Reconstruction did turn out to be a death sentence for black aspirations, as well as the beginning of a state-sponsored reign of terror in the South.] But Greeley certainly never murdered anybody, nor did he advocate for the ill-treatment of blacks. He'd been a reformist Republican from the beginning in the era of Lincoln. No matter. Greeley lost the election badly, spiraled into madness and died before year's end.

Thanks Tom! Back at ya!

Finally: I was stuck waiting for someone late today where a television was playing. Chris Matthews' Hardball came on, and The New Yorker cover was the subject of the day. Ryan Lizza was on, along with the editor of The Atlantic, on whose name I am suddenly blanking. At no time in the 20 minute interview was Barry Blitt's name mentioned. It was as if the magazine itself had made the drawing. What is that? Perhaps they were protecting him from crazy people, a la the Danish cartoonists. Maybe he got surprised by the uproar and wanted no part of it. But why wasn't he mentioned as the illustrator?

Back to my original point about visual-cultural illiteracy. The Hardball conversation was about the imagined effect the cover image would have on viewers. As if it were a pictorial Andromeda strain, or an insanely effective piece of pornography. No historical frame of reference, no term definition or professional context, nothing. It was all words and politics, cause and effect. Oh, and Chris Matthews was offended.

The most promising aspect of Barack Obama's candidacy from my point of view has to do with his apparent irritation and boredom with dominant modes of political behavior over the past 20 years or so. The stupefying simplicity and know-nothingism that has dominated campaigning seems unappealing to him. Thank God. (For that matter, the know-nothing mode doesn't seem to appeal to McCain either, but because he's been lashed to dumb policy ideas, he's stuck with it. What else can he do?) Yes, some of it comes with the territory. So wear the dumb flag pin. Ultimately I think he thinks we can manage ambiguity or difficult problems, because we're not a bunch of idiots, even though we have been treated as such and been complicit in it to boot. The electorate can handle satire. Have some faith in us, folks.

And thanks to Barry Blitt, David Remnick, and Francoise Mouly.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

WALL-E Staves off Animated Despair

I went to see WALL-E several nights ago. Before the film, as usual, we sat through a battery of coming soons, which promised a depressing run of wacky animated hijinx from Dreamworks and Disney. The former cannot make an animated film with a meaningful structure or resonant metaphor under any circumstances. Pop tedium. The Disney gang offered the stupidest movie trailer to which I have ever been subjected, which covers a great deal of ghastly material, including something about Kevin Bacon as an invisible science fiction rapist some years back. I mean really stupid. Esther Williams as a chihauhau on a Mayan set, or some dumbass thing. (Beverly Hills Chihuahau is the name of the movie. There. I've met my journalistic obligation. Dumb-ass. Chew-off-a-limb-to-get-out-of-the-trap dumb-ass.)

I was contemplating leaving the theater and surrendering my cultural passport when the feature started. Actually, a very funny short started, followed by the somber, charming, beautiful and Zeitgeisty WALL-E.

I admire Pixar's work. I think they are producing some of the most important cultural offerings of the present period, and I am not a breathless critic. I will return to the subject some other time, because I think it bears exploration. But for now, I entreat you, go see WALL-E, just to be reminded that smart sensitive people are at work in the land. The first half of the movie is as precise, economical and resonant as the most accomplished silent films, Chaplin and Keaton included. The second half is more conventional, but pays off in intertextual film references, especially to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just go. We'll talk later.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Birthday Diorama

My wife's birthday is July 9. I always make her a card. This year I acted like I was only dimly aware that it might even be her birthday, and she totally took the bait. Woke up first and searched the house for her card. No luck. She was crestfallen. After she left I ran out and picked up her cake (a demure little affair, but layered lemon--mighty good) with an orchid made of sugar from her favorite bakery, plus some color-coordinated chocolate almonds. A little work with a Sharpie and voila! a goofy diorama celebrating her feat of reaching the next prime number. (I am somewhat numerologically fixated on such things--I have a mystical relationship with my odometer, and I fancy prime-numbered birthdays.) I also got her six yellow roses, to match. Suffice to say, I scored. Metaphorically speaking. She took the photographs.

One happy pepper.

That's me on the left.

A bemused egg and a rabid fortune cookie. Today I absentmindedly ate all the almonds. Bummer.

Still More Wahoo

A lawn ornament in Bath, Maine. Wow. A little trouble with the foreshortening on the left leg, but gamely offered, that's for sure. This fellow's Indian marker has been placed in the interstitial zone between the traditional territories of the Abenaki and Penobscot tribes in Maine. Photographed by Jeff Pike, who sent it to me from his vacation.

Above, an image of a Penobscot wigwam, an Algonquin form (the former [along with the Abenaki] a subset of the latter). I do not know the context of the photograph. A negotiation?

Sportswriters in Cleveland used to refer to the Indians front office as "the Wigwam."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lost Images, Lost Seasons, Lost Litigation

From time to time, GT has turned its attention to the misadventures of sports teams in the United States which have named and in some cases de-named themselves after American Indian tribes or more simply, Indians, Redmen, Braves, and the like. (Relevant posts here and here). The subject periodically comes up as I work my way through a baseball season--characterized by expectation followed by crushed hopes [2005, 2007]; or more typically, dread punctuated by self-loathing [2006, 2008]--as a fan of the Cleveland Indians.

Let me stipulate for the record, again, that the Chief Wahoo logotype presents an insurmountable karmic obstacle. The baseball team from Northern Ohio will not win another World Series title (last one, 1948) until the leering hook-nosed strawberry-negro is permanently retired.

History will note that yesterday (okay, several days ago now), July 7, 2008 was marked by dramatic and possibly cosmic events for two such sporting enterprises.

1A: the Cleveland front office concluded that the season has gone irretrievably into the tank, and as a result dealt the reigning American League Cy Young award-winner CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for multiple prospects in his big-money soon to be free agent season. He will make a zillion dollars for somebody next year, but not Cleveland, and not Milwaukee. Strictly a rental. I'm used to it by now. Mark Shapiro, the Indians GM has made good deals in such circumstances before. They take some time to mature.

I like CC. I hope he does well. I also hope he overcomes his postseason bugaboo. I am still recovering from last year's ALCS against the Bosox.

1B: The Milwaukee Brewers are really the Milwaukee Germans.

2: On another note, a two-hundred-and-ten-dollar athletic logotype got trademark-mothballed due to jurisdiction issues in Federal Court, preventing a rearguard resurrection of Chief Illiniwek on downstate sportswear.
Read on. Reporting by Steve Bauer in the News-Gazette (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois).
Chief Illiniwek Logo Lawsuit Dismissed
Monday, July 7, 2008

URBANA – A federal lawsuit by Jack Davis, the designer of the Chief Illiniwek logo, against the University of Illinois Board of Trustees was dismissed today.

U.S. Central District of Illinois Chief Judge Michael McCuskey dismissed the suit, ruling that the federal court has no jurisdiction for the breach-of-contract claim by Davis.

In 1980, Davis, a graphics [sic] designer and UI graduate, created the circle-shaped logo featuring an image of an American Indian man in headdress and chest plate. He was paid $210 by the university for the logo.

In March 2007, Davis applied for and was rejected for a trademark. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled the university already registered the logo.

In January, Davis sued the university, claiming there had been an oral agreement with former UI associate athletic director Vance Redfern that if the logo was rejected or discontinued by the trustees, it would revert to Davis.

Davis claimed in his suit that the UI trustees formally declared that the university would officially abandon all future use of the logo, as well as the names "Chief Illiniwek" and "Chief" in order to comply with NCAA rules.

In April this year, attorneys for the UI filed a motion to dismiss the Davis suit, arguing that the federal court does not have jurisdiction over a contract dispute. Furthermore, the UI argued and McCuskey agreed, the claims by Davis are barred by immunity laws that prohibit suits against the state.

As racialized emblems go, I'd take Chief Illiniwek--no more real, historically speaking, than Cleveland's chief--over Wahoo in a heartbeat. The noble savage is a cartooned archetype, but it can't match a true cartoon for repulsive implications. Disconsolate Illini fans may be reassured to remember that the teams will remain "the Fighting Illini" sans logo, and that the News Gazette will be happy to send you a copy of Chief Illiniwek: A Tribute to an Illinois Tradition and The Chief: The Last Dance? (Revised and Updated Commemorative Edition) for the excellent price of $37.66 through Amazon.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks suggest a more successful approach to this problem: honor Indians by showing things they make, rather than showing what they supposedly look like. Which, come to think of it, applies to the Milwaukee Germans, too!

Images: George Catlin, The White Cloud, Chief of the Iowas, 1845; Antique Cleveland Indians Button, circa 1955, the misregistered printing on which make the chief look even worse, if that is possible; Cleveland Indians Alternate Home Jersey, 2008; CC Sabathia, then of the Indians, now of the Brewers; Paul Bunyan-themed commemorative beer stein, 1972 Upper Midwest Society of Steinologists, manufactured in Germany by Wick Werk, available for purchase here, at; Jack Davis, Chief Illiniwek logotype design, 1980; Seattle Seahawks football helmet design, in use 1983-2001, when it was replaced by a version which still makes reference to the NW tradition, but adds what was undoubtedly somebody's idea of a more "tough-looking" cartoon eyebrow thing.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Water Sports and Milestones

Back from summer fun on the water over the fourth. Not dressed like this, however.

Today is the first anniversary of Graphic Tales, launched with a slightly indifferent post on the subject of a textbook cover. Some reflection on and roundup of the last year in coming days.

Image: Harry Timmins, fiction illustration, Women's Home Companion, September 1931.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Happy Independence Day

Have had my head buried in a book proposal for the last several weeks. Looking forward to enjoying the fourth, and then the sixth, which is the first anniversry of the inaugural post in this space. More to come...