Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Happy Cartoonists Day!

My pal Mike Lynch reminds me that today is Cartoonists Day. Other fine tributes to this festive holiday--second in my affections only to Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, Arbor Day, the Feast of St. Crispian, and two or three dozen other red-letter dates on my calendar--have been posted by Richard Thompson and . . . I'm sure there are many more but I can't find them. Anyway, if you're a beautiful woman who happens to know a cartoonist, be sure to walk up to him and give him a giant smooch today.*

* Revise sexes in that sentence as appropriate. This offer valid only for beautiful women who are already married to me. Unless our chance of getting caught is very, very small.

I'm going to get serious for a moment (seriously) to say that cartooning is important to me, I think it's a worthwhile artform to society, and I'm both worried and encouraged about where that artform is headed.

The first things I remember reading were comics, both comic strips and comic books. I think young developing brains are hard-wired to be attracted to images--especially colorful ones--in which they try to find or impose meaning. Cause and effect, surprise, danger, humor. That in turn opens the door to written language, which in comics provides that meaning. A child's brain is in overdrive trying to discover connections among everything, and images and text are important keys for decoding a confusing reality. I credit comics for making me an early reader and, later, a dedicated one.

Over time, comics take on different meaning and value for an attentive reader. They offer something for everyone: innocent gags, superheroic adventures, political commentary, sex and violence. Too few people understand that comics aren't a genre (like mystery, romance, or Westerns) but a medium like film, capable of telling any kind of story--fiction or non-fiction, juvenile or adult, even mystery, romance or Westerns. Their potential is largely untapped.

I bet if neurologists did a PET scan of someone reading a comic, they'd discover that it lights up different areas of the brain than text or drawings alone. I think comics are like popular music: if you separate the music and lyrics of a song, neither is usually very impressive on its own. The music is unsophisticated and repetitive, the lyrics are often bad poetry. But put them together, and suddenly you've got a song that transcends the sum of its parts and can make you depressed or ecstatic. Similarly, the words and pictures that comprise comics aren't necessarily artful in themselves (although sometimes they are), but put them together and I think you get a communication medium that taps into the brain in a very direct, subtle, and unique way.

I worry about the future of comics for reasons both external and self-inflicted. The traditional means of publishing and distributing comics are in trouble--not just newspapers but also magazines, advertisements, news stands. The spinner rack in the corner drugstore is long gone. Comic books don't sell one-tenth as well as they once did, and aren't written for kids anymore; they're aimed at 35-year-olds who were kids 25 years ago and insisted that their books grow up as they did. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find an issue of Spider-Man or Batman fit for an 8-year-old.

At the same time, I think the craft of creating comics has been on a slow decline for decades. As I've opined before, very few cartoonists working today would've been fit to clean the nibs of Milt Caniff or Walt Kelly 60 years ago. Modern cartoonists reply that they aren't given as much space to work as the old masters had. While that's true, I think it misses the point that most of them couldn't perform as well if they did have the space, and fewer and fewer of them see skill as something worth striving for at all.

Successful "American Elf" cartoonist James Kochalka notoriously declared that "Craft is the enemy," by which I think he meant that cartooning is best as a raw, unschooled, unfiltered, outsider art. Passion is what matters, not drawing or writing chops. (The irony is that Kochalka's own work, though it looks simple, involves a high level of craft.) Now, I think that's a respectable position for some cartoonists to take. One underground genius out of a hundred might be able to pull it off and produce something truly great. Unfortunately, a lot of tyros seem to have embraced the "no craft" mantra and spread it throughout the industry. Every turn of the newspaper or comic book page shows poor writing, thoughtless characterization, clumsy exposition, lazy layouts, artless artwork, and elementary mistakes no professional would have made 50 years ago. They don't even know what they don't know. It's as if a century spent developing the techniques and language of comics was for naught.

The way I see it, celebrating and rewarding craftless cartooning is like hiring a cabinetmaker who only knows how to use a hammer. It's possible your cabinetmaker is a quirky genius who can make that hammer sing, but chances are you're better off hiring one who also knows how to saw, sand, lathe, rout, dovetail, glue, veneer, and stain. If that craftsman opts to make cabinets using just a hammer, you know it's a thoughtful artistic choice rather than a thoughtless handicap. I say master all the craft you can and give yourself the choice to use it, rather than no choice at all.

(I think I also need to say that I consider my own skills barely adequate at best. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. But I value craft and am always working to improve, which has gotta be worth something.)

However, I'm encouraged about the state of cartooning by, well, what happened to me. I made a webcomic that got published as a graphic novel, which led to a second graphic novel. Maybe I'll get to make more. Those were not options available to cartoonists when I was growing up. Or even 10 years ago. Oh, graphic novels have been around a while, but not from as many publishers seeking out as many different voices as today. In the 1990s, Will Eisner or Art Spiegelman might've been able to get a graphic novel published, but I wouldn't have. So much terrific, exciting--even skillfully crafted--work is appearing in print and online. That, along with the work of those still fighting the good fight in comic strips, comic books, single-panel cartoons, etc., makes me an optimist.

Although cartooning is going through a rough and uncertain patch right now, I just think there's something too elemental about the human attraction to pictures combined with words to lose them. They will always be of value to someone. Comics abide.


R said...

What about manga?

Although it's based around Japanese imports, manga is flourishing economically and as an art form right now. Just check out the massive manga section in Borders! Although most manga books undoubtedly have the same problem American comics do concerning lack of real artistry, there are some that are really well done.

As American comics leaves American children and teens behind to focus on their aging reader-base, manga seems to be swooping in to fill the gap. They offer everything that comics did, just with a different brand of characters.

Brian Fies said...

What's . . . manga?

Just kidding (you know I am)! I almost wrote about manga, but know so little about it--aside from its obvious current success and my burning hatred of Naruto--I didn't think I had anything to say. Not much of an opinion one way or another. Ignorance isn't much of a defense, but it's all I've got.

Still, I respect your taste, can't deny manga's commercial success, and joyfully wish a Happy Cartoonists Day to everyone who enjoys or produces manga as well!

And that's a good insight about manga picking up the younger readers that American comic book companies don't seem to value anymore. I think they've made some efforts to fix their mistake (e.g., my friend Raina Telgemeier is working on a manga-style X-Men book) but probably too late.

ronnie said...

Re: your comments about young brains and the value of comics: We have an 8-year-old nephew (also our Godson) and learned about two years ago that he was having trouble with reading. Basically, he didn't like to read very much and therefore was falling behind. I suggested looking into age-appropriate comics and his mom, who'd never even considered that, said she'd give it a try. Thereafter we gave him a bunch of comics for every birthday and Christmas (we discovered that some comics publishers, including Marvel, actually produce special editions for early readers).

He loved the comics and consumes them voraciously, and his reading has improved dramatically. He's now caught up with his classmates.

I think the value of comics as a tool for encouraging young readers, especially boys, is woefully underappreciated.

Happy Cartoonists Day!


Brian Fies said...

Ronnie, I was teasing Jeff Kinney a couple of posts ago, but I know one of the things he's happiest about and proudest of is hearing how his "Wimpy Kid" books get "reluctant readers" to enjoy reading. He hears stories about boys like your nephew all the time. At times like that, you realize what a big difference a little funny book can make.

Mike said...

My parents let us have a subscription to a comic book every year, and I remember getting Caspar at a house where I couldn't have been older than six. I was an early reader, though I don't know how much I could parse of it on my own at that stage. But it was important to have it and to puzzle over it.

My experience puzzling over my parents' volume of Barnaby was quite different. I knew something very strange was happening to that little boy and it filled my dreams -- I think I improvised what I couldn't read, though going back now it would be hard to come up with anything more surreal than what Crockett Johnson had in mind.

At a slightly older age, when I was able to read the dialogue, I was put off by Steve Canyon and Pogo in the newspapers because of their density, perhaps graphically as well as in terms of verbiage. I also think it was too hard for me to follow because I didn't necessarily see the paper every day or retain the plotlines from day to day.

Tintin was a good bridge, with its combination of spare graphics and heavy plot, and the fact that my first exposure to him was in book form so I could let the story unfold at my pace instead of the newspaper's.

(God, I'm turning into Andy Rooney. Was there a point to this? Oh, yeah -- comics and kids. Yeah, I liked comics when I was a kid. Still do.)

I.B. Nelson said...

Without question the cartoon arts are valuable. Some years ago I was doing a series of presentations in elementary schools of the art of cartooning...in each classroom I explained how one trained for the field, did a few drawings with markers on large sheets of paper (from a roll), and answered questions from the kids.

At the time, a young boy was hanging around our house and harassing us...throwing rocks at the kitchen window, climbing up on the garage and dumping cans of roofing tar on our patio, and other mischief.

There was, I was told, quite a bit of "buzz" in the school about my classroom visits as each classroom's visit time approached. So I walk into this one room and who is sitting in the front row? None other than our young tormentor. I saw him slowly slump into his seat as his expression changed from excitement to trying to disappear into his seat.

I said nothing to indicate I recognized him and went ahead with my usual presentation. That afternoon there was a knock at my front door...it was the young boy. He apologized for his behavior and asked If I would teach him how to draw. My wife refused to allow him into the house (he'd "mooned" her), so for about three weeks, each evening we'd sit on the front porch as I gave him personal drawing lessons.

One day he didn't show up and I never saw him again. I inquired at the school about him and it seemed his mother had moved away with him. The school, however, said he had been a major discipline problem, but had done this "miraculous" turn around, becoming (for those three weeks) a model student. All he'd needed was a little personal time from someone, someone to show some real interest in him (his mother from what I saw spent most of her time with male friends - turned out they lived quite near by). Having that personal attention from a working illustrator/cartoonist was, I think, a bit of a plus.

I considered my time with him as well spent. As a side note, the school librarian told me that after my series of classroom presentations, the children in the school had checked out every book on Art or Cartooning in the library and that there was a waiting list for the books, a circumstance that lasted some six months. ;0)

One teacher remarked on my ability to hold the childrens attention for an entire class session, asking how I managed to do it. I just smiled and said "I'm just teaching the right subject!"