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.)

   

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

WARRING WITH TROLLS, part 8

       "To live is to war with trolls"  -- Ibsen

This week I gave a talk on copyright law at the annual convention of the National Cartoonists Society (always a fun event).  My talk included an Eight Minute History of Thievery in Cartooning, recounting some of the colorful disputes over who created what.  This post is taken from that talk.

The history of comics is streaked with plagiarism like bacon is streaked with fat.

In fact, the very first comic strip resulted in a huge copyright battle.  Richard Outcault, who created the Yellow Kid in 1895, found himself competing with a duplicate Yellow Kid in a rival newspaper:

dueling Yellow Kids by Outcault (left) and George Luks (right)
Rudolph Dirks created The Katzenjammer Kids in 1897 but when he asked for a vacation his syndicate tried to replace him with another artist, Harold Knerr.  Dirks sued to regain his strip but after a long court battle,  Dirks and Knerr ended up with two virtually identical strips: The Captain and The Kids and The Katzenjammer Kids The two strips competed for audiences for 67 years, from 1912 to 1979.  When The Captain and The Kids finally folded, both creators were already dead.

Virtually identical characters by Dirks (left) and Knerr (right)
In 1933,  Ham Fisher hired a young assistant, Al Capp, to help with his comic strip,  Joe Palooka.   Capp noticed that one of the characters in the strip, a large bumbling mountain man called Big Leviticus, was popular with readers so Capp quietly developed his own strip about another large bumbling mountain man, Li'l Abner, and sold it to a rival syndicate.

A strong resemblance: Fisher's Big Leviticus (left) and Capp's Li'l Abner (right)
When Fisher discovered what Capp had done, he went ballistic.  He claimed that Capp had stolen his ideas, and reminded readers that "the original hillbillies" were in Joe Palooka.  His ads urged readers not to be "fooled by imitators."  Capp and Fisher descended into a bitter feud which lasted 20 years.  When Fisher finally committed suicide in 1955, Capp crowed that he considered it “a personal victory,” saying that driving Fisher to suicide was his "greatest accomplishment.” 

As you can tell, the early years of cartooning saw a lot of heated battles involving different kinds of borrowing, copyright infringement and plagiarism.  But cartoonists in the early decades never dreamed how sophisticated and lucrative theft could be.  In later years, what was once criticized as "theft" came to be renamed "appropriation art" or "repurposing" or "transformative use" or "sampling" or "re-contextualiation." What all of these new categories have in common is that they represent minor, unimaginative art. 

The legitimization of this type of borrowing began with pop art.  Bill Overgard's panel from his 1961 strip, Steve Roper was copied by Roy Lichtenstein.  When reporters questioned Lichtenstein he responded, "What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word."  Overgard replied, "he said he never copies them exactly, [but] he comes pretty close..."



Fast forward a couple of decades and you encounter the fine artist Erró (Guðmundur Guðmundsson) who specializes in copying other people's comic art, redrawing it in a mash up, and selling it as his own fine art.  When cartoonist Brian Bolland visited the gift shop at the Pompidou Center in France, he found that Erró had copied Bolland's cover for Tank Girl in a fine art poster.  Bolland's name had been carefully deleted from his picture.
Bolland standing in front of Erró's poster
Bolland wrote a long, thoughtful letter on social media which shamed Erró into turning over his unsold inventory of prints to Bolland.

But Lichtenstein and Erró are amateurs compared to Richard Prince who shamelessly steals from illustrators, cartoonists and other commercial art.  For example, Prince copied this cartoon as a work of fine art...


...which recently sold at auction in 2012 for $812,500:



Once when Prince was sued for copyright infringement, he offered this legal theory for his borrowing, along with his personal opinion of the lawyer who filed the lawsuit:
I hated that lawyer; that lawyer was really an asshole.  I just wanted to be like-- my attitude was like, Dude, this is my artwork, and you are a square.  You are a fucking square.  For me, it's like I wasn't going to be a part of his world, I wasn't going to acknowledge his world. ... Copyright?  That's absurd."
Finally, no history of theft in cartooning would be complete without mentioning ebay.   An excellent example is the following gentleman who, under the name "fosworld," was selling fake Calvin & Hobbes artwork as originals on ebay.

 

The scam was easy to confirm because the cartoonist, Bill Watterson, had donated those originals to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University where they reside today.  When confronted, the seller continued to sell the fake strips, dodging and weaving and offering various excuses.  Complaints to ebay about the seller were slow to get a response; ebay is notorious for ignoring intellectual property rights in situations where ebay might make a quick buck from somebody else's fraud.

Finally the outrage over the Calvin & Hobbes forgeries became hot enough that fosworld quietly shifted to other, less troublesome inventory.  To my knowledge none of fosworld's victims ever got their money back.  If you encounter one of them, tell them to write fosworld. 

Theft in cartooning continues to mutate and evolve as fast as cartooning itself, and the internet is the perfect petri dish.  Be careful out there!