Sunday, July 24, 2016

COMIC-CON 2016: PHIL HALE


 
  
July 21 at San Diego Comic-Con was the world release of Phil Hale's new book, Let's Kill Johnny Badhair.   The book brings together Hale's well known series of paintings of  a solitary, half dressed figure battling a machine in front of a bright blue sky.




Hale painted the same subject nearly eighty times. Yet, there’s nothing redundant about these pictures.   Each new painting was a fresh experiment.  Each battle had an uncertain outcome.


These are what composers call “variations on a theme.”  They allow the composer to explore a concept’s full potential by using multiple, even contradictory approaches.  They gave Hale  the freedom to give his character different roles, to kill him off and bring him back again in a more profound state, one that could grow and mature along with Hale’s artistic powers.

Hale was kind enough to invite me to write an essay for this book.  Here is an excerpt:
Hale’s artistic growth through these variations is obvious for all to see.  He didn't want a formula that could be repeated to make his job easier. To the contrary, he struggled with each new painting the way Jacob struggled with the angel, wrestling through the night and refusing to let go until the angel blessed him. Sometimes he won and other times he didn’t, but neither outcome was permanent.

The clash between man and machine has inspired many legends, from John Henry’s race against the steam drill to John Connor’s struggle with Skynet.  You might say it has become a central metaphor for our time.  Like all great metaphors, the clash between man and machine offers both strength and flexibility. Its strength gives us certainty while its flexibility permits us a wide variety of interpretations. For example, a clash between a man and a machine might represent humanity’s clash with modernity, but it might also symbolize sterile efficiency against chaotic imagination. We might reflect on it as a statement on the endurance of the human will when flesh is pitted against metal; or the value of a soul in a conflict with the soulless. It can weigh the value of order against disarray. imagination, or sterility against organic weakness, or efficiency against disarray. 

Hale has developed his own, striking version of the metaphor: a ballet in the sky between Badhair and a sinister metallic conglomeration of sprockets, blades and cables. The two characters leap up together, they twirl mid-air, one advances while the other retreats. The paintings are powerful, even savage, and yet at the same time they are riddled with ambiguity: sometimes it seems one combatant has won, but that lasts only as long as the next painting. The stakes seem high-- perhaps the very highest-- but it’s never quite clear what they’re battling for or who the victor will be.
        *    *    *    *
I love how Hale sets his stage with a universal background: an eternal blue sky with no distractions or clutter that might limit the scene to a particular time or place. For all we know, these battles could be taking place on Mt. Olympus or in some dystopian future. They could take place over centuries or in a nanosecond. The combatants could be enormous in size or microscopic. The sky gives us no basis for measuring any of these things; its universality makes it the perfect backdrop for a clash of big ideas and ambitious icons.


Hale flew to San Diego from London for the release of his book, which was published by Ashley Wood's publishing company.  



It was a pleasure to see Phil again, to talk about our favorite illustrators, and to be reminded again of his great sincerity, his intellectual curiosity and his passion for growth.  This wonderful compilation of badhair paintings reminds me of his past accomplishments, but it is clear he has many themes, and many variations ahead of him. 


Sunday, July 10, 2016

ONLY THE CARTOONISTS PREVAIL


Mort Drucker

On this date in 1925, the famous Scopes "monkey trial" began in Dayton, Tennessee.  High school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in public school. 

T.S. Sullivant

The lawyer for the World Christian Federation blasted evolution for suggesting that humans were descended "not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys."  The lawyer defending Scopes, Clarence Darrow, told the court his goal was "preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States."

Richard Thompson
Scopes lost his trial, but nobody ever seems to lose this battle permanently.  For nearly 100 years, the argument has raged in different forms.  More than a dozen other states attempted to impose similar laws against teaching evolution.  Scientists, theologians, teachers, government officials, clergy and bureaucrats all clashed bitterly over this issue. When the opponents of evolution began losing ground, they switched tactics and attacked anew in the name of "creation science."

It was the generals who proved most persuasive.  Following the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik, the US government became so alarmed by the state of science education it passed the National Defense Education Act.    The resulting textbooks included the theory of evolution, but even that didn't stop the resentment.  Texas newspaper editorials and church sermons angrily insisted on the right of Texans to disbelieve science.

The only group that seems to make out well in these kinds of protracted disputes are the cartoonists. At least they get to have fun drawing cool pictures of monkeys.  So in commemoration of the Scopes trial,  here are some of my favorite drawings of apes:

From the great Walt Kelly:






The brilliant Mort Drucker drew dozens of wonderful monkeys in his story about Mighty Joe Kong in MAD no. 94:



 






From Peter de Seve:




And for those who enjoyed last week's panels from Prince Valiant, here is another elaborate (although somewhat stiff) image from Hal Foster: 


And finally, the weirdest of them all, from Gary Larson:

 

Monday, July 04, 2016

THE ENORMOUS ADVANTAGES OF FORM

The pictures in comic strips today have become less ambitious and imaginative.

Prince Valiant, 1942

The strips which first established the greatness of the medium had a strong visual character.  Today the drawings have become simpler and more basic, even as the words have become more adult and sophisticated.


You'll find no images in comic strips today like the grand images from Hal Foster's Prince Valiant:


You'll find no powerful chiaroscuro drawings such as these from Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates:



You see no displays of visual imagination such as this from Gasoline Alley:


or this from Lyonel Feininger's Wee Willie Winkie:


Feininger imagines the black smoke from the locomotive smokestack as "giants" while the steam from the cylinders becomes white rabbits running alongside the train:



George Herriman's visual layouts were crucial to his poetic content:

 

 The words in Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon were pretty silly, but Raymond's drawings were quite eloquent.   Note his strong brush work describing Dr. Zarkov's back:


Raymond created huge fanciful worlds with his brush:  


Such worlds are gone from comic strips, having migrated to movie screens.


Why have so many strips today settled for a low grade functionality?

 

People have offered many explanations: smaller size, changed economics, different priorities.  I'd like to suggest another explanation: drawings have become dumber because comic strip audiences are less appreciative of the importance of form.  The modern appetite for comic strips has shifted from form to content; rudimentary drawings in simplistic, repetitive compositions don't slow the intake of a joke.

Whatever the reason, there's an awful lot of mediocre drawing in popular strips today. 
 

In this example, the woman's rolls of fat make no sense, and the folds on her shirt work against the humor of the drawing.  Those spasmodic motion lines surrounding both the woman and Opus suggest movement in all directions simultaneously.  Opus is running on a floor substantially higher than the one on which the woman stands.  I don't mind the ugly colors since the artist is going for a grotesque effect,  but here the light source and purple shading are as aimless as the line work.

There's no law that pictures must be internally consistent--  George Herriman made an art of inconsistency-- but the sloppiness of so much contemporary drawing wastes a lot of opportunities.  Spontaneity is a virtue only as long as artists are able to distinguish it from carelessness.

Words can be eloquent but pictures have an eloquence all their own.  If we lose sight of the enormous advantages of form -- the extraordinary range of qualities found in omission and selection, in visual design, imagination and grace-- we will never be able to recapture them with all the advantages of content.

Monday, June 20, 2016

WHEN THE WALKING LINE PAUSES

Paul Klee famously said, "a line is a dot that went for a walk."

 
But some lines pause along the way.  Let's consider why.

Paul Coker Jr.'s line stops, digs down, then springs forward again. 

This gives his line additional energy,  as if it is propelled on its path by booster rockets.

Like Coker's line, Robert Fawcett's line here lingers at strategic spots on its walk:

 

Fawcett doesn't pause out of uncertainty.  Rather, he punctuates his line as a way of emphasizing his commitment.

Here we see Ronald Searle's line stopping, backing up, and digging in again like successive blows by a sculptor chiseling into stone: 


Searle's technique adds character and musculature to his line. 

Another good example is Mort Drucker's trademark bouncing line. 


Drucker's line loops back, bestowing a springiness that could never be achieved in lines that walk the shortest path between two points.

These lines all walk with a hesitation step.  They're very different from the flowing, sinuous line of artists such as Hirschfeld.

 

The marks left at these stopping points reflect the added pressure of a wrist and the increased flow of ink.  But mostly they show viewers that an active brain has chosen to renew its commitment to a line at this precise spot.  They display a series of choices rather than a single choice.   They are the graphic equivalent of leaving behind a trail of exclamation marks.  

In the right hands, these choices can greatly increase the character and strength of a line. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

MAKING ADVERTISING ART IN THE 1950s

In the 1950s the Maxwell Paper company commissioned a series of paintings by famous illustrators showing the process for creating advertising art.  The series is a great archaeological record of a long dead world. 

The series was called "Partners in Productive Advertising."  It gave each illustrator the opportunity to show his (yes, they were all male) interpretation of a key man (yes, they were all male except for the pretty model) in the creation of an ad.  In a few short years, this world would evolve into the glamorous, lucrative world of Mad Men.  Art directors would take off their ties and start wearing Nehru jackets.  But in the 1950s the advertising world was more down to earth and functional.

Illustrator Steven Dohanos shows us the busy Account Executive dealing with the client. 



Austin Briggs shows us the Advertising Manager  ("[B]ehind that frown lies a battleground where conflicting loyalties temper every decision.")

 


 Al Dorne shows us the copy writer trying to come up with an original idea for the ad:


 Al Parker depicts the artist painting the ad (although the artist is largely obscured behind a drawing board and a pretty girl):




Robert Fawcett shows us the Art Director enthusiastically reviewing the work of the artist:


 

With the illustration completed and approved,  John Atherton shows us the Production Manager jumping into action to implement the ad:


Finally, Peter Helck (who was always more comfortable painting machines than people) shows us the printer:


There we have it-- seven different treatments by seven famous illustrators of the day.  Today the advertising industry has changed; the technology and clothing in these pictures seem laughable to us, and the process seems cumbersome. 

But no matter how obsolete these pictures seem, there are some timeless elements that remain relevant.  For example, no matter what the era we can still tell when an artist has faked his way through a picture:

 

Dorne took that face off some convenient shelf and faked the foreshortening of that figure. Dorne's pencil-to-the-brow pose is a dopey way of showing creative thinking.  That muddy swamp of colors on the desk reflects poor planning in any era.

Telephones were still fairly primitive in Dorne's day, but that didn't stop Dorne from phoning it in.

Contrast Dorne's contribution with Fawcett's:


The tired, jaded expression on the Art Director's face is clever and revealing (as is his bad tie).  Fawcett could've taken Dorne's lazy way out, but Fawcett saw an opportunity to do something interesting with expressions and took full advantage of it.  


Most of all, notice the structural integrity of Fawcett's picture-- the overlapping orthogonal shapes and angles that seem like a random mess on a busy desk, but elegantly convey the architecture of the scene:


No matter how old fashioned the advertising jobs and technologies and haircuts depicted in these pictures may seem, we can still look at these pictures and distinguish quality from fakes, as bright as day.

Today's lesson comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:  "The excellent is new forever."

(Many thanks to my friend Nick Meglin for the tearsheets for the Maxwell Paper Company series.)