Monday, October 27, 2008

Cartooning: The Final Frontier

I thought some of you might like this. There's a passage in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow set in 1945 in which my character goes to the movies to watch a Flash-Gordon-style serial. I therefore had to come up with something Flash-Gordon-style to put on the movie screen. For reasons that'll be apparent if (when!) you read the book, I created my own fictional universe-within-a-universe rather than use actual stills from real movies--which also avoided the problem of tracking down 60-year-old copyrights and asking permission.

So first I built a spaceship.

Photo against black backdrop shot in my backyard

The fuselage is a tapered slice of a staircase newel post a little less than a foot long. The nose spike is a golf tee, the rockets in back are spent CO2 cartridges I collected for months, and the windows are solid plastic balls back-painted with a fluorescent paint. Little round-headed nails made good rivets. I wanted it to have a deliberately home-spun look, as if a movie propman on a small budget threw it together from junk lying around his bench.

Same picture "flopped" left to right and cropped to provide a black background

I also wanted a billowing cloud of exhaust shooting out its rear, just like the ol' Flash Gordon ships. For that I found a photo of an actual rocket launch (seemed appropriate) and cropped out everything but the smoke:

I made stars very simply in Photoshop, scattering white spots of different sizes on a black background and then blurring the heck out of them to get that old-timey unfocused outer space look. I also found a nice Apollo-era Moon photo (Apollo 14, I think) with a crater so fat, bright and lumpy it almost looked phony. One of the minor themes of WHTTWOT is that the creators of old sci-fi films and comic books got a lot of it right, so my little in-joke here is that my 1940s movie serial provides an amazingly accurate preview of the lunar surface no one would see first-hand for another couple of decades.

Then I put the pieces together. I made the exhaust semi-transparent so stars showed through. After flopping the spaceship to move from left to right, I had to do the same to the Moon photo so its shadows would be consistent with the light source on the spaceship. Here's an intermediate step:

The lunar crater isn't flopped yet: the light hitting it is coming from the right, while the light hitting the spaceship is coming from the left. I fixed that in the version below.

Since it's a black-and-white serial I converted the image to grayscale and back. Finally, to smooth out the cut-and-paste look and make all the assembled bits seem more like they belonged in the same universe, I washed out and blurred the entire image (I guess the movie projector is just a little out of focus) and overlaid a faint transparent sepia tone over the whole thing.

I did a few of these composite images. One of my goals was to make them look fake--I wanted them to look like bad special effects from the era. Then I drew my characters watching these "scenes" on screen, distorting them to account for perspective when needed. I got good mileage out of that spaceship, using it for both photo composites and as a model for actual drawings.

This was fun.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I'm Alive

Sorry I haven't been as attentive as I'd like. It's just a combination of having regular boring ol' work to keep me busy and not much happening with the book at the moment. We're still doing final edits and putting together some catalog pages I'm really looking forward to showing off when I can. They're cool! I'm also busy building a dozen new ghosts that I hope will be swirling through my trees on Halloween.

My wife Karen noticed that has gotten a copy of WHTTWOT's cover, seen in the little ad to the right. This isn't quite the final-draft cover but it's close. And somebody already bought a copy! Just another teeny milestone on the journey....

In an effort to make up for my neglect, let me brighten your day with a link to "Upside-Down Dogs," the perfect counterpart to the classic "Stuff On My Cat." This is why the Internet was born.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

There's Something About These People ...

... that I find strangely familiar. And yet ... not.

This could go either way. I remain wary but hope for the best.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Happy Birthday, Giam!

Cheers, Paul!
You may not know the name Paul Giambarba or his nom de plume Giam Barba (unless you were reading my old blog when I wrote about him two years ago), but he is a talented artist, illustrator, cartoonist, photographer, designer, and writer; an expert in graphics, typography, printing, publishing, and anything having to do with commercial art in its mid-century Golden Age; a professional's professional. And today he turns 80.
Paul served as Polaroid's first art director for 25 years, beginning in 1958. He designed the classic angular rainbow-striped graphics and packaging that instantly identified the Polaroid brand and established it as "younger and hipper" than its "stodgy" competitor Kodak--a strategy studied ever since and put to profitable use by companies like Apple today. He lived and worked in Europe in the 1950s, where he produced some terrific sketches and amazing poster art, while his more recent watercolor work captures the beauty of his beloved Cape Cod. He also continues to draw elegant and incisive illustrations, cartoons and caricatures.
Paul was an enthusiastic supporter of Mom's Cancer whom I got to know on a cartoonists' bulletin board. In October 2006, Paul visited family in my hometown and we met for lunch. We had a great, wide-ranging conversation about, well, everything. He couldn't have been more generous or encouraging with his time and advice.
Anyway, a bunch of cartoonists who frequent that online watering hole hatched a secret plan to draw and post cartoons today in celebration of Paul's birthday. Below is my contribution: a shamefully accurate rendering of what was going through my head during our lunch. Be sure to check out Paul's website sometime--it's a treasure.
Happy Birthday, Paul! And thanks.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Genetics Schmenetics

My daughter Laura will be mortified that I'm announcing she just got hired to draw a weekly comic strip for her college's student newspaper. Her salary will just about cover her lunch (not "lunches" plural, just one). I told her that, although I was very proud we now have two paid cartoonists in the family, her mother would probably blame me for it. I was right.

My other daughter, Robin, recently showed me some cool software she's using to help analyze the composition of pottery dug up by her anthropology professor. She has also worked in the archeology lab since last year, sloshing dig debris through a watery sieve to sort and count the interesting bits. Sounds like fun.

I haven't pressed the fact that I earned extra cash in my own college years drawing for my student newspaper and working for an astronomy professor. I can't take much credit for how my kids are turning out--they're their own people pursuing unique interests in their own ways--but I'll take whatever credit I can. 'Cause that cartooning and laboratory stuff is totally me.

My wife helped, too.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I'm Brian, and I'm a junkie.

"Hi, Brian."

Yesterday I discovered an online game that has consumed my every free moment, plus maybe a few not-so-free moments that should have been spent working instead. "Fantastic Contraption" is the perfect pastime for any former (or current) science-ish nerd whose imagination was fired by Tinkertoys and Erector Sets--in other words, me.

The game provides basic components--wheels that spin clockwise and counterclockwise, a couple of different types of connecting rods--that you use to construct all the ramps, bridges, cars, tanks, crawlers and trebuchets needed to convey a small pink object to a target. The online version has a good tutorial and 21 levels that get pretty tough. Luckily, when you get frustrated with a level, you can see how hundreds of other people solved it. The range of really clever solutions that work for each level is astounding. It's fun to see how someone else invented a way to make these simple pieces operate in ways you'd never imagine and then adapt it for yourself.

Of course, once I got through the game once, I found myself going back and redoing favorite levels, trying to find either easier solutions or ridiculously more complicated ones. The thumbnails below link to two of my favorite creations so far, both levels I completed relatively easily at first and then returned to repeat with style. (After clicking the link, hit "Play" then "Continue" and "Start." In testing the links, I noticed that the connection is a little iffy. If it doesn't work, try it later.) I like the first one for its simplicity and the second for its completely unnecessary complexity.

If you find your will as weak as mine and the next several days pass in a haze of levers, pulleys and cams, I apologize.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #3: Line

One of what I intend to be a series of occasional essays on what I think about when I'm writing and drawing. I'm not saying this is the best way, right way, or only way. It's just a way that works for me that I hope someone finds interesting.

It's easy to talk about "line" in drawing without ever really defining it. It's a vague and slippery arty-farty term that can make you sound smart without really pinning you down. "His work has such an expressive line!" Well ... who can argue with that? But what, if anything, does it mean? This post takes a stab at describing what I mean when I look at, judge, and draw a line.

I remember clearly the moment I first got the concept of line. It was a college life-drawing class, when the instructor showed us a cartoon by Michelangelo with everything in the image obscured except one line that ran from a figure's hip to its ankle. (Originally, a "cartoon" was a sketch an artist did in preparation for a painting and is the sort of cartoon I mean, although it is cheeky fun to refer to giants like Michelangelo as "cartoonists." Technically true.) This ochre scribble had form and mass. It carried weight and seemed to twist in and out of the page. When you really looked at it, it was astonishingly graceful and expressive. And it was just a single line! Somewhere in my hippocampus, a penny dropped.

Cartoonists traditionally (that is, pre-digitally) draw their lines in pencil first, then go over them with ink pens or brushes to make them black. Many (probably most) artists like their pencils better than their inks, finding the preliminary work more spontaneous and lively. That's not true for me. I never feel like one of my drawings comes to life until I've inked it, and I think the quality of line and the tools I draw it with make the difference. Those tools are a fine sable or sable-synthetic brush and a variety of nibs, usually crow-quill.

The lines above were made by (top to bottom) a brush, a stiff crow-quill nib, and a more flexible crow-quill nib. I make them thick or thin just by pressing harder or lighter as I draw. I can use these different line weights in a few ways: first, to indicate light and shadow; second, to suggest mass; third and more subtly, to represent something I'm not sure what to call but the best word I can think of is "tension."

Light and shadow are obvious. Lines facing toward the light are thin and those facing away are thick. Usually, light comes from overhead so lines defining the undersides or bottoms of things should be heavier. Mass is also obvious: heavy objects take thicker, bulkier, rougher lines than light ones. Anvils and clouds demand different line weights. Then there's "tension," by which I mean I make my lines thinner where an object is stretched or tight, and thicker where it's loose or full. It's easier to show what I mean with a quick example:

In this drawing, light's coming from above. My line is thinnest at the crown of the head both because it's nearest the light and the skin stretches tight and thin against the skull. In fact, it's so thin the line actually disappears for a bit. Ditto for the bridge of the nose: it's facing the light and the skin is taut. The line is thicker under the nose and lower lip, where shadows fall, and along the jawline, which is both farthest from the light and fleshier. However, it's thinner on the chin itself because the skin is firmer there. The lines defining the sides of the head gradually widen from top to bottom, indicating the transition from light to shadow and also the fact that the face gets looser toward the bottom. This is a slightly saggy middle-aged person; if I wanted to draw a teenager, I'd keep the line lighter toward the bottom because the skin is tighter.

Here's just another quick example showing two identically sized boxes, except the one on the left is hollow cardboard while the one on the right is solid concrete:

Obviously, the heavier object has a heavier line. Another difference between these cubes is that on the cardboard box the line weight is the same from top to bottom, while on the concrete cube the lines thicken from top to bottom. This implies that the bottom of the concrete cube is carrying a lot of weight, more and more as you approach the floor, while the cardboard box is light as a feather. I exaggerate this effect by widening the sides and rounding the corners of the concrete cube as if it were bulging under its own mass, while conversely narrowing the sides and sharpening the corners of the cardboard box as it it were holding itself up with no trouble at all.

I'm not sure how conscious I am of this stuff when I'm inking. It seems like a lot to think about! I know I always start with an awareness of where the light is coming from. The rest just seems to flow. I recall seeing a video of Charles Schulz teaching a cartooning class in the mid-1970s in which he told the students, "when you draw grass, think of grass." I don't mean to get too mystical mumbo-jumbo about it, but I think that's how it works. When I'm drawing cardboard or concrete I think "cardboard" or "concrete," and my brain-hand combo seems to do the rest.

Application, with a Bonus Rant
Now, in addition to thinking about and applying this stuff, you've got to simplify it. Cartooning is distillation, stripping a drawing down to the essential infomation needed to communicate. That's the toughest for me, and where I struggle the most. It's so much harder to draw something with two lines than twenty! I think this aspect of cartooning makes the line even more important as it's tasked with conveying more and more information. An inky squiggle can be a blade of grass, a coyote falling off a cliff, or a brick zipping past at the speed of sound. Only the skill of the cartoonist and the mind of the reader who comprehends the symbols and fills in the missing details gives the squiggle meaning.

What dismays and frustrates me is how few contemporary cartoonists seem to think about this stuff, or even be aware that they can or should think about this stuff. Fifty years ago, this is what professionals did. Understanding line was the bare minimum required to get into the club. Milt Caniff was a hugely influential giant to two or three generations of cartoonists not because "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" were swell comic strips but because he was a master of line. Same with Roy Crane, Walt Kelly, Wally Wood, or any of forty or fifty other greats I could list.

"Steve Canyon" by Milt Caniff. If I had 1%
of his ink-line mojo, I could die happy.

Without naming names or pointing fingers, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

It's tempting to pin the death of skillful linework on the rise of digital art--and I think poorly done digital art does have a bland, sterile coldness to it--but in fact some cartoonists (e.g., Darrin Bell) produce very lively lines on the computer. You just have to work at it. But in order to work at it, you have to realize it's worth knowing and doing in the first place. Unfortunately, I fear the art of cartooning has eroded to a state where many of its practitioners don't even know what they don't know. I'm far (way far) from an expert at any of this; the more I learn, the more I realize how ignorant I am. But I'm trying.

Cartooning is hard enough as it is. We've got a hundred years' worth of tools to do the job, many of them hand-forged and left for us by master craftsmen in decades past. Why anyone would toss out and neglect those tools until all they have left in the toolbox is a cracked hammer and bent screwdriver is beyond me.

UPDATE: Re-reading the next day, I realize a lot more could be said about line. This wasn't intended to be comprehensive, just a first stab. In addition to the few variations I described, lines can be bold, tentative, coarse, tremulous, precise, Impressionistic. Each affects the reader. An artist's line can become their signature: the smooth elegance of Al Hirschfeld or nervous scritchiness of Ed Koren are instantly recognizable. Lack of a lively line can also be a style choice. For example, "Dilbert" and "Pearls Before Swine" use very uniform lines that reinforce the bleakness of their universes. Whether or not Scott Adams and Stephan Pastis made that choice deliberately, I think it works for them.

There's a lot to think about. Maybe more later.