Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On Cheating

Never draw what you can swipe.
Never swipe what you can trace.
Never trace what you can cut out and paste.
And never do any of that if you can hire somebody to do it for you..

--Wally Wood
Master Cartoonist


I hate drawing cars. I'm not good at it. There's always a kid in the high school art class who earns minor fame, and maybe even a little pocket change, drawing beautifully rendered hot rods, with giant exhaust pipes roaring, tires squealing off the page, and every chrome reflection perfectly in place. He (invariably a "he" in my experience) is a venerated specialist, and he is not me.

In theory, an artist who understands perspective can draw anything. Establish a horizon line and vanishing points, and build the object out of simple shapes. It works great for a lot of things. The problem (or rather, my problem) with cars is that they're pretty complex objects, with lots of compound curves and subtle angles. Another problem with cars is that everyone is intimately familiar with them; if a drawing doesn't get the proportions just right, readers know it looks "funny" even if they can't say exactly why. Yet another problem is that every car model has dedicated owners and fans who know every bumper and bolt. I'd really like to get 'em right. .

So when I recently had occasion to draw an old car, I knew I needed help. The first resort is reference photos, and indeed you can google hundreds of pictures of old cars in various states of restoration and repair. That helps, but didn't give me the angle I needed. Evidently, no one in automotive history has ever photographed a car from a spot hovering 30 feet above the front left fender. That's a tough angle to extrapolate from a bunch of ground-level front and side shots.
I needed a model. After combing fruitlessly through dozens of Hot Wheels racks, I found an online vendor of affordable, accurate models of old cars. A couple weeks later, I had a 1939 Chevy coupe ready to pose for me.
At this point I might've drawn it freehand, but I decided not to do that. Instead, I put the model on a sheet of white poster board and took digital photos of it from several angles.

1939 Chevy coupe, with a smaller-scale 1940 Ford on its tail

I chose the photo above, opened it in Photoshop, and made the Chevy approximately the right size to fill the hole I'd left for it in another drawing several weeks earlier.

At this point I might've traced the photo using a light box ... but I decided not to do that. Instead, I converted the color photo into a duotone image, which is like a black-and-white photo except you substitute shades of some other color for black and gray, in this case cyan.

Cyan duotone

I printed that picture onto a sheet of the same 2-ply Bristol board I use for all my cartooning. Then, I used a brush and pens to ink directly over the light blue image.


The tricky thing here is to not get bogged down in detail and draw too tightly, despite the pains I've taken to this point to be as precise as possible. Cartooning is distillation and simplification. It's got to look as loose, relaxed, and hand-drawn as the rest of the artwork that will eventually surround it. I didn't go nuts putting in lots of reflections and spotted black because, again, that wouldn't match the style of the rest of the page.

Next, I scanned the drawing into Photoshop, where I made all the blue disappear (I likewise pencil all of my artwork in light "non-photo" blue so I don't have to erase after I've inked). All that remains is my black line art, ready to copy and paste onto the open road I drew for it elsewhere.

Blue erased, ready to copy and paste

Semi-final (I may add some shadows and such later). The road texture is a charcoal rubbing I did of my concrete front porch.

I ... kinda wish I hadn't had to do that. I'd love to have the skills to dash off any car from any era from any angle, but I don't. I admit I feel a little disappointed in myself--but not much. Over time, I've come to regard both writing and drawing as primarily problem solving. I know what I want to accomplish; now what's the best way to do it? This is the best way I could think of to solve a particular problem and produce the result I wanted.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

; !

Yesterday's New York Times had a nice little article about my second-favorite punctuation mark, the semicolon. The lede of the story is that a new subway placard, reminding riders to throw away their newspapers, properly--even elegantly--used a semicolon. Such a marvel! The article then touched on the use and misuse of the shy but intimidating character.

My favorite passage in the story: "David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver."

I mention the article here even though I don't expect anyone else to follow that link or care. That's part of the story's charm.

What? Doesn't everybody have a second-favorite punctuation mark?

Monday, February 18, 2008

I Am Old

My wife, kids and I are all fans of the Indiana Jones films (someday I'll tell you about our bathroom decor), and we all agree that our first look at the online trailer left us pretty happy and eager for May 22. Happy? "Giddy" is more like it. Harrison Ford still cuts a credible figure with the hat and whip, and we're impressed with the look and tone glimpsed in the preview. However, the point of this post isn't to give a bit of much-needed publicity to Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg's obscure little art-house film.
The point of this post is that I'm old. We were talking about the trailer when one of my girls said, "This'll be our first chance to see Indiana Jones on the big screen!"
My wife's and my reactions were identical: "What do you mean? Surely that can't be true. Never once seen an Indiana Jones movie in a theater? How is that possible? How could you even become an Indy fan without seeing it as God intended? You obviously forgot!" Even after we spent a few minutes working out the timeline, we couldn't quite comprehend how our kids had reached adulthood only seeing videotapes of Indiana Jones on television.
Here's how. My twins are nearly 20, born in 1988. The last Indiana Jones movie--which I clearly remember seeing as a full-grown mature adult--came out in 1989. QED.
Today we all went to the movie theater to see "The Spiderwick Chronicles" (not bad), which was preceded by the same Indiana Jones trailer we'd huddled around my monitor to watch two days before. The first time my kids have seen Indiana Jones on the big screen.
I was thrilled for them. And a little wistful for myself.
This movie better be good....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Review: Suite 101

There's a very nice review of Mom's Cancer just posted at Suite 101, an interesting site with which I was not previously familiar. Suite 101 is hard to describe: it's like a general-interest magazine that publishes freelance articles on a variety of subjects such as lifestyle, health, education, entertainment, books, technology, politics and more, with dozens of new pieces posted every day. Very ambitious, and evidently successful.

Editor/reviewer Irene Taylor concludes, "This book is a 'must read' for anyone facing cancer of a loved one. Make no mistake--this graphic novel isn’t a child’s comic book. It is a serious, often humorous, always honest guide on how families can cope with a cancer diagnosis and survive the difficult road ahead." Irene and I corresponded when she asked permission to post my cover art with her review--a courtesy I always appreciate--and I'm grateful for her recommendation. Thanks!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Friendly Neighborhood Furry-tailed Rats

About a year and a half ago, I posted this sketch of a very determined squirrel in my backyard. This little guy worked extraordinarily hard for every seed he managed to sneak from my bird feeders, clinging to a slippery pole while an infinite feast awaited just beyond the tips of his fingers.
This morning I looked out my back window and spied the little guy below, probably a direct descendant, no less determined and a slightly more capable climber. Or maybe the pole just wasn't as slippery today.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Odd Ends

I've been busy lately--very, very busy--and likely to remain that way for a while, which explains my dearth of blogging but does not ease the guilt gnawing at my soul. I appreciate the loyalty of everyone who checks in once in a while. I'll try to make it worth your while soon. Meanwhile, here are some Internetty things I've come across that I've found interesting:

1. Successful science fiction writer John Scalzi posted 10 tips titled "Unasked for Advice for New Writers About Money." Although aimed at aspiring, inexperienced, or struggling writers, I found much wisdom there for any sort of self-employed freelancer type (which I've been for about nine years, completely independent of cartooning). Scalzi's aim is to wipe the romantic stardust from wanna-be eyes and tell some hard truths: Treat it like a business. Don't quit your day job. Don't undervalue your work. Your income is half what you think it is (there's no automatic paycheck deduction to help pay those quarterly taxes). And my favorite, marry someone with a real job. I have little argument with any of it, although the comments raise some interesting counter-examples and objections.

2. Comic book writer Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, died today at age 60 after a long fight with pulmonary fibrosis. Mark Evanier broke the news and wrote a nice obit in his blog. I liked Mr. Gerber's work, which was intelligent and witty, but mention him here mostly because he wrote a blog himself. In it he discussed current comic book projects but also his illness, and his archived posts describing successive set-backs with a mix of hope, frustration, courage and fear reminded me very much of my mother's. It's good to remember once in a while.

3. Something lighter? Drawn is "the illustration and cartooning blog" that always gives me a dozen new ideas and two dozen talented people to be jealous of, while io9 is a new blog that delivers news about science fiction and speculative tech in a breezy format that consistently scores one or two hits a day with me. And every month or two I find time to listen to the JCB Song. I can't help being a sentimental dope; having kids'll do that to you.

4. Something lighter still? There's no going wrong with a Monty Python Video Wall.

More and better later. Thanks.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Gus Arriola and the Language of Lines

Cartoonist Gus Arriola died yesterday at age 90. His Associated Press obit is here. Mr. Arriola wrote and drew the comic strip "Gordo" between 1941 and 1985, when he retired. It's fair to say he's not a household name, but when I was a kid trying to figure out how comics worked, his strip was among those I most frequently clipped and saved. I think he's one of the all-time underrated greats.

"Gordo" was set in Mexico and featured an overweight tour guide, his housekeeper, and various human and animal characters--notably a chihuahua, pig, cat and rooster. The strip had swell characters and an easy-going charm, but what really caught my eye was the way Mr. Arriola played with the language and iconography of comics in ways I'd never seen before. His use of graphics was masterful.

Unfortunately, good examples are hard to come by online and I have no idea where to find my 30-year-old clip file (though I suspect I still have it somewhere). The images below were the best I could find, and you'll just have to take my word that I remember several even better.

(click to see larger)

The Sunday strip above, which I scanned from Jerry Robinson's book The Comics (which unfortunately reproduced it in black and white), is a nice piece from 1954. There's a lot of arty goodness going on here: the shapes of panels, the bottom border and negative profile in panel 6, the playful use of lettering guides as a design element in panel 3. Even the cigar smoke in panel 6 is an interesting squiggle. But what sells it is the checkerboard pattern, introduced in panel 4 and finished off in the final panel, where Gordo is not just a checkerboard silhouette, but one that has shattered into surprised shards.

The next Sunday strips are in color and highlight's Mr. Arriola's use of same as well as his incredibly graceful and expressive ink line. I thought he really shined when drawing the animals, particularly in frenetic action accompanied by colorful streaks or lightning bolts. I love the first strip, which is very "meta," in that the cartoonist literally cools off the characters by coloring them in cool colors (and letting in some cross ventilation by cutting two holes through the panel border!).

(click either to see larger)
Next, another black-and-white Sunday strip I found online, this one capturing the dark festivities of Dia de los Muertos. Note that these aren't just pretty pictures, but pretty pictures that tell a story. But mostly, it's just Grade-A cartooning.

In his imaginative use of the entire cartoonist's toolbox, I always thought of Arriola as a natural heir to Cliff Sterrett, the best cartoonist you've never heard of. Mr. Sterrett did "Polly and Her Pals" in the 1910s through '30s, when he created innovative, abstract work that was both of its time and far ahead of it. Below are a couple of good examples.

(click either to see larger)
Here's a close-up of that sixth panel, which I think shows just how far comics allows you to push the boundaries of literal representation to communicate an idea--in this case, a spooked cat in the middle of the night--that couldn't be shown any other way. This is just beautiful stuff.

The Language of Lines
Coincidentally, I learned of Mr. Arriola's death after coming home last night from the opening of a new exhibition at the Charles Schulz Museum titled "The Language of Lines." The show pretty much covers what I've been writing about: the unique symbolism of comics that instantly communicates an idea, from the antique "light bulb of inspiration" and "sawing log of slumber" to increasingly sophisticated techniques that continue to emerge. Originals in the show date from the early 20th century (including Sterrett) to today, as represented by "Pearls Before Swine" and "Stone Soup," among others. Good examples from "Peanuts," "Pogo," "Doonesbury," "Calvin and Hobbes" and many others illustrate the thesis. When you see Snoopy dance on Schroeder's musical notes, Calvin melt into a puddle of snot, or George W. Bush depicted as an asterisk wearing a Roman soldier's helmet, that's the language of lines.

(An "inside baseball" note: I don't think I've ever seen "Calvin and Hobbes" originals before and was astonished by how small Bill Watterson drew them--particularly his Sundays, which looked even smaller than published size to me. Most cartoonists draw originals at least 1.5 to 2 times the size at which they'll be printed, and often larger. For example, "Peanuts" originals are huge. I guess the tight confines gave Watterson the look and line he wanted, but it really surprised me. Very gutsy.)

The exhibition was curated by Brian Walker, cartoonist Mort Walker's son and part of the Walker-Browne dynasty that continues to produce comic strips such as "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi & Lois." However, Brian may be even better known as a comics historian, author and museum curator, having organized dozens of comic art shows in the U.S. and abroad, including the very high-profile "Masters of American Comics" in 2005 through 2007. He also flew across the country to speak at last night's opening.

I've met Brian twice before. We share a publisher in Abrams and, I discovered just last night, the same editor (look out, Charlie, we compared notes). I also met his wife Abby. Brian grew up immersed in comics and is one of the most knowledgeable experts around, and it was a pleasure to reconnect with him. A bad cold, as well as sadness over not being home to see his beloved New York Giants play the Super Bowl, didn't distract him from giving a nice talk on the language of lines as demonstrated in the pages we then went into the gallery to view. Add some music, wine and snacks, and it was a very memorable evening.

So it was somehow fitting to come home with that exhibition and conversation on my mind, and then read about Mr. Arriola. "Gordo" isn't represented in "The Language of Lines" but it could be--probably should be. It was a very influential strip for me personally. In the bigger picture, I can't help comparing the bold graphic sensibilities of creators like Arriola and Sterrett to the much more pallid, static comic strips of today. If somebody drew comics like that now, it'd be heralded as a cutting-edge creative breakthrough--never mind that Sterrett did it 90 years ago and Arriola 60. This great stuff used to be in the newspaper every day!

Too many contemporary cartoonists and readers don't even remember what they've forgotten.