Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baby Blues

One of the very nice things about being a member of the Charles M. Schulz Museum is that you don't have to waste a lot of time seeking out your favorite cartoonists. Sooner or later, they all come to you.

So it was last Sunday, when I went to a talk and book signing by the gentlemen who do the successful comic strip "Baby Blues," Jerry Scott (writing) and Rick Kirkman (art). Jerry had been scheduled to appear last year with his "Zits" co-creator Jim Borgman but canceled for a medical emergency, so it was good to finally see him. They gave a swell chalk talk in the museum's little theater, clearly something they have a lot of experience with. Jerry spoke and Rick drew, anticipating and punctuating each other's points like a good comedy team, and they did a nice job talking about the origin of the strip, how their partnership works, how they developed the characters and themes, etc.

View from the back row of the theater. My wife and I habitually
sat up front for these things until we figured out that, when it came
time to queue up for book signings afterward, everyone behind us
got to file out of the room and get in line first. We learn by doing.

The most fun part of the talk was a look at some of the outraged letters they receive from readers--some not entirely unexpected, as when the strip jokes about (and shows) breastfeeding, but others from completely beyond left field. For example, I learned that you never want to anger square dancers. They also marveled at the mail they got when cartoonist Stephan Pastis borrowed their characters for his "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip--for example, showing the "Baby Blues" toddlers driving a car to go on a beer run. The very best part of that story? Stephan himself sitting beside me in the theater laughing his butt off.

I was really looking forward to meeting Jerry and Rick afterward. Jerry I didn't know, but Rick and I have met electronically in an Internet forum. He's said some very kind things about Mom's Cancer and even given me some invaluable Photoshop advice. So I figured he'd recognize my name, and it turned out Jerry did, too, and we all had a very nice conversation for a minute until it was time to move the line along.

Rick, Jerry and me

What Rick is drawing in the photo above. This
brings my collection of original "Mom and Dad
cartoon character art" to two (see Borgman).

Once again, after hearing Scott and Rick's talk, I was struck by how hard these guys work. Anytime I've met professionals at the top of their field (any field, not just cartooning), I came away impressed by the time and dedication they devote to it. That seems like such an obvious secret of success--"hard work, huh, who'da figured?"--and yet it seems to be the one thing I've seen that always separates the achievers from the wannabes. It also always strengthens my resolve to do better.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cat-Shaving Weather

It's spring. The days grow longer, flowers shoulder their way out of the warming earth, the scent of barbeque wafts through the neighborhood. Have you shaved your cat today?

I've written about Amber the Simple Cat before. Amber joined our family after a veterinarian friend of ours saved her wee kitten life. She was found alone in a field, just a few weeks old, comatose, and our good friend nursed her back from the brink. Then this good, good friend called us and asked if we could give the kitten a home because, if we didn't, he was regretfully going to have to send her to the pound and his heroic life-saving effort would likely be in vain. "Oh, and by the way, she's probably brain damaged."

Well, you can't say "no" to a good, good, good friend like that. I wanted to name her "Eileen" because she had no cat-balance abilities at all (like the old joke: "I lean"), but my wife and kids vetoed that as an affront to her dignity (like how's she gonna know?) so we settled on "Amber" after her golden color. And she's been a fine addition to our family, with luckily no lingering health problems and a disposition just as sweet as she is stupid. Which is very.

Now, Amber is a tabby with long hair. We didn't know about the long hair when we took her in, nor did we anticipate that she'd never really get the hang of grooming herself, she'd hate brushing, and our other cats would be no help whatsoever. All autumn and winter she builds up massive mats and tangles, shedding ever more elaborate tufts throughout the house; every spring when the weather turns warm enough, we have our good, good, good, good friend shave it all off.

If you're ever in my home and want to know if spring has arrived, just look for the naked pissed-off bobble-headed cat.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston

I'm lifting my head above the surface of work and deadlines to note the passing of animator Ollie Johnston, the last of Disney's "Nine Old Men." Walt Disney himself gave the group its name--though most were only in their thirties at the time--in deference to their pioneering work in the earliest days of the studio, when they refined a new art form beginning with Snow White and progressing through about the 1970s.

Johnston began working for Disney in 1935 and animated movies ranging from Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi and Pinocchio to The Rescuers. He retired in 1978. In 2005, President Bush presented Johnston the NEA National Medal of Arts in recognition of his career. Late in life, he and his partner Frank Thomas--the second-to-last "Old Man"--experienced something of a renaissance, as younger audiences remembered and honored their work. They became the subjects of a popular documentary film, Frank and Ollie, and won much well-deserved recognition. Among Johnston's new generation of fans were director Brad Bird, who used caricatures of Frank and Ollie in The Iron Giant, and the people at Pixar, who put them in The Incredibles (also directed by Bird). It was nice to see.

Johnston in Iron Giant (top), and Frank and
Ollie in The Incredibles, voiced by themselves

There are far more knowledgeable Disney experts and animation historians who can talk about Johnston and his colleagues' artistic contributions. Jim Hill is one. What Ollie Johnston meant most to me was that he and Thomas wrote The Illusion of Life, an inside look at the art and process behind Disney's classic films. Though ostensibly about animation, I think it's also an excellent book for cartoonists and even writers, and one of the first I recommend when asked.

The Illusion of Life is a beautifully illustrated coffee-table "How To" book. I'm sure it's one of the first that a serious student buys when they get to animation school, but I think it's more than that. What I got out of the book was less about how to do the work than how to approach it, and those lessons apply far beyond animated cartoons. I was amazed by how much thought went into the apparently simplest of things. How much analysis lay behind structuring stories and building characters. It's hard, and it's supposed to be hard, but if you do it right it looks easy--even inevitable, as if it were impossible to imagine turning out any other way. I use insights from this book every time I draw.

When I pulled my copy of Illusion of Life off the shelf this morning, I found tucked into its pages a few sheets of paper I printed off the Web more than 10 years ago summarizing advice from Johnston as passed on by Pixar's John Lasseter. Luckily, the same list is still available online. The 30 tips include technical notes that only an animator would need, but also some good advice for anyone creating characters in any medium. For example:
  • If possible, make definite changes from one attitude to another in timing and expression.

  • It is the thought and circumstances behind the action that will make the action interesting. Example: A man walks up to a mailbox, drops in his letter, and walks away. OR: A man desperately in love with a girl far away carefully mails a letter in which he has poured his heart out.

  • Concentrate on drawing clear, not clean.

  • Everything has a function. Don't draw without knowing why.

  • Does the added action in a scene contribute to the main idea in that scene? Will it help sell it or confuse it?

Solid gold principles to write and draw by. More information about Johnston is available from Disney and at the official (and not recently updated) Frank and Ollie website. The Associated Press has written a nice obit as well.

Edited to Add: New links to nice tributes by animator Brad Bird and writer/animator John Canemaker.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


This little feller rudely woke me up too early this morning. Quick and loud. No harm done.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Seminar: Living Well with Cancer, April 19

I did such a swell job publicizing the last event hosted by the Washington Cancer Institute in Washington DC that they asked me to do it again. This looks like a worthwhile series of free seminars and I'm happy to comply:

Living Well with Cancer – April 19, 2008

Washington Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital Center invites you to its second FREE Living Well with Cancer seminar of the year featuring Alice Matthews Beers, BSN, an oncology nurse and expert on cancer patient recovery. Beers will provide information and guidance on how to communicate effectively with your doctors and other health care providers about post-treatment issues. She will also address the importance of a healthy emotional recovery by discussing how to recognize and manage anxiety, depression and fatigue.

The event will be held on Saturday, April 19, from 9 a.m. to Noon at the National Rehabilitation Hospital Auditorium located on the Washington Hospital Center campus, 102 Irving St., NW, Washington, DC 20010. To register, please call 202-877-DOCS (3627) or register online at www.whcenter.org/livingwell

Friday, April 04, 2008

Casting a Critical Eye

Back when "Calvin and Hobbes" was an actual daily comic strip, a person of my close acquaintance looked up from the newspaper and asked, "Is Bill Watterson a really good cartoonist?" I assured them that Watterson was fantastic, one of the best working at the time, maybe one of the best ever. "I thought so," came the reply. "But it's hard to tell."

I understood the question. Watterson's brushwork is so economical and confident, I could see how it might look sloppy and slapdash to a "civilian." What was evident to me--but, as I was reminded, not to everyone--was the bedrock foundation of artistic fundamentals underlying it. Perspective, composition, expression, use of negative space. Watterson was also particularly smart about what he didn't draw. For example, if you or I set out to draw two characters walking through a snowy field, we might show drifts piled against fence posts, icicles hanging from tree limbs, rocks protruding through a crunchy crust. In contrast, Watterson followed Walt Kelly's directive: the best way to draw snow is to draw nothing at all. Feet disappearing into the ground, a scraggly weed, everything else blinding white as far as the eye can see. With such scant clues, you still immediately get a feel for how deep the snow is, maybe even its texture. That's fine cartooning.

I'm reminded of Jack Benny's ability to get laughs with silence, the audience reading his mind and filling in funnier responses than he could possibly voice. One imagines that the perfect cartoonist would somehow be able to communicate an idea by drawing nothing at all.

(Remember my post on Victorian era cartoonist Phil May? "When I can leave out half the lines I now use, I shall want six times the money." A cartoonist who figures out how to omit all the lines should get all the money.)

Of course there's more to cartooning than economy. A fairly common topic among cartoonists is "artists I didn't think were any good when I was young but love now." You hear names like Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Chester Gould. My example is a comic book artist named Don Heck. When I was a kid reading Marvel Comics' "Avengers," Heck's credit on the title page made me groan. Part of the problem was that in the 1970s, when I was a young teenager collecting comics, Heck was in poor health and winding down his career. In addition, he was often called in to do rush jobs on tight deadlines when other artists couldn't. Frankly, I didn't catch him at his best.

But my main problem with Heck was that I just didn't "get" his style, which was so different from either the pop-art Jack Kirby or super-slick Neal Adams styles popular at the time. At his best, Heck did loose, sophisticated, impressionistic, dynamic brushwork in the tradition of newspaper great Milt Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates," "Steve Canyon"). He had a great eye for layout and storytelling, and a successful career in romance and western comics before superheroes hit big in the 1960s. It wasn't until I learned a little about the history and craft of cartooning, and maybe tried to do some myself, that I really appreciated how tremendously skillful he was.

Art by Don Heck ca. 1966

I've learned you can come to respect work that you don't particularly like. I recently had a cup of coffee with a syndicated cartoonist, during which the conversation turned to a comic strip done by another syndicated cartoonist. "I don't really like his strip," he said. "It's just not my thing. But you can tell at first glance that he's a great cartoonist who belongs on the comics page." I think that's a mature way to look at things, and I've got a fairly long list of artists like that: I'll probably never buy their work, it just doesn't appeal to me, but they're obviously very skilled professionals doing terrific stuff that somebody out there will really appreciate. I'll also admit there are artists I still don't get despite the raves of people whose opinions I trust. I'm always open to the possibilities that either they're wrong or I need to get educated.

How can you tell the good from the bad? The "so good it looks simple" from the "looks simple because it really is simple"? I'm not sure. Read a lot, I guess. Good cartooning is always clear; if you have to stop and go back because you missed something or don't understand what a character is doing or how the action progresses, that's a failure (the cartoonist's, not yours). You shouldn't have to think about it. If a piece of writing or art makes me care about the characters and feel something--happy, sad, even appalled--I figure it's doing something right.

Honestly, I think I divide other people's work into three categories: 1.) I could do that. 2.) I wish I could do that. 3.) Wow, I have no idea how they did that. I think many people's taste evolves and matures as they realize that a lot of work they thought fell into Category 1 really belongs in Categories 2 or 3.