Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Comments left on the last post by Namowal and Jim deserved more thought and space to answer than I could deal with there. So I'm dealing with them here.

Both asked about my artistic influences. It's complicated.

I grew up reading mainstream comic books (DC as a gateway to Marvel) and comic strips. I didn't pay much attention to Underground, Japanese, or European work until well into adulthood, when I approached them more as a student than a fan. While I can appreciate Crumb and Tezuka and Herge, I came to them too late to really fall in love. Still, I try to learn what I can.

Beyond that, I divide my influences into those I happened to absorb as a kid growing up reading comics and those I sought out later as someone trying to learn about them. I remember being impressed at a very young age by the mid-century expressionism of Hank Ketcham's "Dennis" and Bud Blake's "Tiger." I still recall entire plotlines of "Dick Tracy" I read at age seven. Curt Swan's "Superman" and Carmine Infantino's and Neal Adams's "Batman" mesmerized me. When I was 11, we moved to a city whose newspaper carried "Prince Valiant," and I fell head-over-heels. Some work I could appreciate as both a young fan and maturing student of the art, starting with "Peanuts" and including Gus Arriola's "Gordo."

At about the same time, I found my new stepfather's secret stash of "Pogo." Dad became a fan in college in the late '50s, and I devoured his collections. Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo may be one of the dozen most influential books I've read. I never saw "Pogo" printed in a newspaper in Walt Kelly's lifetime, but I'd mark my discovery of that strip as the inflection point that turned me from a fan of ephemera into a student of an art form.

In my early teens I migrated to Marvel comics, where I found John Buscema, Jack Kirby and Gene Colan. I also began reading books about comics, how to make comics, and many terrific creators from before my time including McCay, Segar, Sterrett, Raymond, Crosby, Caniff, and too many others to mention. I also found "The New Yorker."

At the same time, I was learning about traditional fine art in school and on my own. I couldn't begin to list the artists whose work I studied and tried to learn from. But I'll always remember being in a university life-drawing class when the instructor dissected a sketch of Michelangelo's, showing how he defined the contour of a hip and leg--firm and fleshy bits moving forward and backward in space, popping off the page--using nothing but a single line. It was a real thunderbolt-from-Heaven "a-ha!" moment. Whenever I sit down to ink, I aim for the "lively line" standard set by Michelangelo (no pressure).

Don't get me started on writing.

Everyone is the sum of their influences. I think the trick is to cast your net as widely as possible and drag in as many influences as you can. My most common complaint about many cartoonists, especially young ones, is they all seem to have the same tiny set of influences. Berke Breathed and Gary Larson have a lot to answer for (not really; it's not their fault that half the cartoonists following in their footsteps aped their styles, including their significant artistic limitations). These days you see a lot of what I'd call a "manga house style" appropriated from Japan, which is a straitjacket of its own.

You've got to lift your eyes. Michelangelo has something to teach a cartoonist. So do Rockwell, Picasso, Rembrandt, Dali, ancient cave paintings and Egyptian canopic jars. Likewise, it's very important to draw from life as much as possible; instead of drawing a hand like Kirby or Schulz or Tezuka draws a hand, look at the one at the end of your arm and draw what you see.

Then you take it all in, figure out how it works as best you can, and draw and draw and draw until it all filters through you and you don't even think about it anymore.

And that's your style. I think.


Mike said...

Synchronicity -- was saying to someone that my reaction to the Hasen profile was "You mean the guy who did Dondi is still alive?" and then was thinking of those who aren't, and focused on Gus Arriola. Their styles weren't particularly the same, but the two strips are linked in my mind -- perhaps because they were near each other in the Sunday funnies? I don't remember. But I remember reading them both, liking them both, and not having much of a clue as to what was going on in either of them -- Dondi because it was a continuity strip and Gordo because it was Gordo. An underground strip before the form existed.

Come to think of it, I read a lot of comic strips before I was old enough to figure out what was going on in them. Maybe that's why I get so impatient with people who ask questions during movies. Go with it. It will make sense later. Or it won't. But just go with it.

Or, in the purported words of Ezra Pound, "It doesn't mean anything. It's a poem. It's just a goddam poem."

Brian Fies said...

Oh, I had no idea what was going on in "Pogo" half the time. I had no clue that the bobcat Simple J. Malarkey was a metaphor for Sen. Joe McCarthy (what did 11-year-old me know about McCarthyism?), but I knew he was a metaphor for something. Figuring it out later only added to the strip's richness that I already loved.

sligo said...

As to Michelangelo being important to ANYONE that creates a living creature via pencil, pen, paint or whatever, I remember being told in art school that anyone lucky enough to get a portfolio review with Disney better have it loaded with quality life drawing studies and pieces that showed anatomical mastery (Ooo, there's a phrase). And yet, what was really important to me about that revelation was that someone took a moment to make sure I -- a young wannabe -- had an important insight that could guide the rest of my creative life...kinda what you've just done with your post. Good on'ya, Brian.