Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Originals Shmoriginals

This post might be a bit too "inside baseball" for some, but I know a few people who'll appreciate it. If you're not one of them, thanks for your indulgence.

The nice folks at the Norman Rockwell Museum e-mailed me a wish list of the original art from Mom's Cancer they'd like to include in their "LitGraphic" exhibition, which opens this November. I was sorry to inform them that, of the eight pages they requested, four of them suffered from a minor problem called "not actually existing."

I am a proud cartooning dinosaur, drawing with brush, pen, ink, and a strong aesthetic that if paper was good enough for McCay, Kelly and Schulz then, by Zeus, it's good enough for me. But something I noticed in the many months it took me to draw (and live through) Mom's Cancer was how my relationship with digital art--specifically Photoshop--grew and evolved in that time. For example, on Page 10 of my book, I drew a picture of Mom metaphorically drowning in a sea of medical jargon.

Now, I actually did that: the jargon was printed onto a sheet of paper that I carefully trimmed to size, glued to my two-ply bristol board, and painstakingly cut around the shapes of Mom, the waves, the bubbles, and the caption. That's what the original looks like.
But that's insane! The way to do that panel right (which is to say, the way I would've done it six months later or today) is to create Mom, the jargon, the captions, and the bubbles as separate elements and then layer them atop each other in Photoshop. It'd take one-twentieth the time and look much better. The only downside is that there'd be no original ... just scattered bits and pieces, half of them ephemeral electrons on a hard drive.

I'd regret that. But I'd still do it. Sometimes it's nearly unavoidable. For example....

One of the originals the Rockwell people asked for was the two-panel image of Mom on Page 47 that we also adapted for the cover. Now, Mom's Cancer began life as a Webcomic. Here's how that original looked:

A year later, Abrams agreed to publish Mom's Cancer and Editor Charlie picked this image as the one he wanted for the cover. Two problems: I needed to get rid of the captions--which meant I had to draw what was hidden "behind" them--and I frankly thought I could draw it better. Best to start from scratch. So I drew this:

Obviously the captions are gone. The large space to Mom's right that I inked black in the first version is now blank, to be filled with color as we choose. And there are also no stripes on Mom's shirt. I wasn't sure we'd want the stripes for the cover and I was thinking about trying some fancy color separation stuff so, using a light box to trace over the drawing above, I drew those on a separate sheet of paper:

Then, combining the new drawing of Mom with the separate stripes and captions cut-and-pasted from the Web original gave me the published Page 47:

Combining the same elements differently, cropping, and adding color gave me a book cover. The only thing this process didn't give me was, again, an original that looks like either Page 47 or the cover.

There's a tiny subsequent irony. When we were getting ready for my book's debut, Abrams wanted to make buttons using Mom's profile. The problem was that in my new art, I'd still drawn her with a panel gutter bisecting her head. So for the button graphic I had to digitally erase the panel borders and fill in the missing details. If I'd been smart, I would've drawn it without the panels in the first place. Yet another non-existent original.

As I say, I'm not entirely happy about this state of things. Original cartoon art is very, very cool and I've always gotten both pleasure and education from studying it. I'm afraid we'll have volumes of great original hand-crafted art from the 19th and 20th centuries that will last forever and then nothing from the 21st century onward, as more and more of it is done digitally on media that won't survive a couple of decades (anybody got a 5.25-inch floppy drive?). That's a great loss.

I think the best I can do is value hand-crafted physical artwork and continue to do as much of it as I practically can, within the bounds of modern reproduction requirements and sanity. Although I've become much more proficient with, and even dependent on, Photoshop, I'd much rather spend hours hunched over a drawing board than a computer monitor. Originals matter.
By the way, I gave the Rockwell Museum a good list of alternative pages that do exist. We'll see what they like.


dddegg said...

I can't imagine this post being too inside for anyone, except those with no artistic ability at all.
Wait, I have no artistic ability and I found it...well, fascinating.
I'm afraid we will all lament the lack of original art pages in the future.

Namowal said...

You make a good point.
I switched over to digital recently. Completly. No more smeared ink, no white out, no brush washing, no pencil sharpening, no eraser crumbs... and no origanal. Digital art is like a rainbow. Something visible under the right circumstances, but you can't handle or display the real thing.
Then again, I'm no Windsor McCay. My originals = silverfish chow. If, with time and practice I get as good as you pros, I'll break out the brush and bristol again.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, DD. I appreciate the interest, I wasn't sure about this one. Namowal, I understand the alluring siren song of digital. I just find ink and paper transcendently hypnotic in a way I've never found a computer. I don't think working on the latter will ever feel like "doing art" to me.