It’s that time of year again…

 trickORtreatSM

At first, this gag posed a problem, in that I didn’t know how to wordlessly identify the woman as Barbara Gordon, rather than some random paraplegic. I lamely added a “bat-signia” pin to her shirt and hoped for the best. But in the end, everyone familiar with Babs Gordon got the joke, and I think the bat pin was superfluous (and barely large enough to see anyway). Showing a redhead in a wheelchair near a Batman costume probably gave readers all the clues they needed.

Sky color posed another problem. Dark blue or black would convey evening, which is when trick-or-treaters are out and about. However, Batman and Harley’s costumes read poorly against a dark background, and I needed them to come across instantly — especially since they aren’t the focal point of the scene. A pale blue sky would give me the light background I needed, but would suggest daytime, causing readers to pause briefly (but fatally!) before deciding that this is indeed a scene of trick-or-treating. My gut told me to go with yellow: it’s pale enough to frame Batman nicely, and it gives the impression of a setting sun. Yellow is an odd choice for “sky” color, but nobody questioned it, and I think it sells the gag. (I also debated including more details — a porch lamp, mailbox, etc — to show that this is the front porch of a house and not some other structure. But less is more — especially in gag panels — and I concluded that the stair, grass, and hint of a doorframe would suffice.)

One or two sharp readers did point out that a paraplegic like Barbara would have a ramp to her front door instead of a stair. However, I think a stair better portrays the front door of a residence in the minds of most readers, whereas a ramp would be confusing (especially in this silhouetted profile, with no further details). We can assume that she only recently returned from her hospital stay and hasn’t yet installed a ramp, or that she’s handing out candies at the home of a friend. In any case, the bottom line is selling the gag. That isn’t about realism per se, but rather: what feels true?

New Sketchbook!

Hey Lads and Ladies,

I’ve gone and collected a bunch of sketches from my various blogs into a sketchbook. It isn’t fancy (it’s Xeroxed in black and white, and stapled by hand!), but I’m happy with how it came out. Best of all: I opted for 8.5″ x 11″ (instead of that little digest size artists often sell at conventions), so the art is nice and big. 30 pages of the best stuff I’ve drawn in recent years can be had for $5, plus $2 for shipping.

If you like my art, and you’d like a hardcopy of it, please send $7 and your mailing address to me at:

Jesse Hamm
c/o Periscope Studio
333 SW 5th Ave
suite 500
Portland, OR 97204

Check or money order, please; no cash!

You may also PayPal me at jessehamm@frontier.com

I prefer simplicity to profit, so for now I’m charging only $2 for shipping anywhere on the planet. I may change this later if suddenly I become big in Japan or something, but until then: $2!

(The drawing below will NOT be in the sketchbook. Yes, I know; it is confusing. Drew it after the sketchbook was compiled, and temporal realities…chronology… Long story.)

Ariel_color_web

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(The below drawing of Vindicator is indeed in the sketchbook.)

Vive les comics.

Here’s a piece I unearthed from my LiveJournal archive that seemed worth “reprinting” here. It contrasts the fame of being attached to a major, licensed project with the narrower but more intense fame of individual work.

1/5/07

He-Man was a big deal for me and my childhood pals. I learned to draw quadriceps and lots of other muscles (most of them real!) from watching He-Man cartoons, and the MOTU dramas my friends and I staged during recess went a long way toward making school bearable. So it was with great excitement when, at the age of nine or ten, I discovered that my best friend, Brett, had acquired some He-Man production art.

Brett’s dad was an optometrist, and it happened that a patient of his, Mr. Raddatz, was a REAL LIVE animator who ACTUALLY WORKED ON HE-MAN. Mr. Raddatz was nice enough to give Brett some Xeroxed model sheets from the show, along with an impressive pencil sketch of He-Man’s sidekick, Orko. Brett kept that sketch pinned to his wall for many months — maybe even years — and I paused to admire it whenever I visited. This was in the days before either of us had been to an animation gallery or comic convention, and before the internet made animation art more accessible, so Mr. Raddatz was our sole ambassador from that mystical world where cartoons were concocted. The very name, “Mr. Raddatz,” took on the magical quality of a “Mr. Tumnus” or “Mr. Toad,” to my mind. I never met the man myself, but like Santa Claus, the gifts he’d left were ample proof that he was alive and making magic somewhere.

Recently, after watching a He-Man cartoon for the first time in many years, I got curious and decided to do a websearch on kindly Mr. Raddatz. Was he really an animator? Whatever became of him? For that matter, what was his first name?

My first stop was he-man.org, where I confirmed for myself that Mr. Raddatz was indeed one of the many animators who worked on the He-Man cartoons. I also discovered his first name: Virgil. From there, I searched on “Virgil Raddatz,” and found the following:

“VIRGIL RADDATZ died on May 9, 2003. From 1954 until 1989, he worked as an animator for Warners, DePatie-Freleng, Filmation, UPA, Ruby-Spears, Hanna-Barbera and Filmation.”

That, and numerous cartoon credits, were the only signs of Virgil Raddatz on the web. It saddened me to think that this figure who loomed so large to me and my friends ended up as merely a blip on the webscape. Thirty-five years of effort, from a man talented enough to succeed in the animation biz, and what was his legacy? Credit shared with crowds of other obscure talents? He probably meant plenty to his family and friends, but I couldn’t help thinking his skills deserved a better showing.

While mulling over Mr. Raddatz, I happened to watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid. At the movie’s end, after the more prominent credits rolled by, a tiny name jumped out at me: Mark Kalesniko. Kalesniko is an artist I remembered from his work in comic books. After his initial efforts at Disney, Kalesniko apparently moved back home to Canada, where he recorded his struggles as a ‘failed’ animator and aspiring gallery artist in a graphic novel called “ALEX.” Kaleskino’s cartooning voice is unique, and ALEX is a barrel of frantic excellence tumbling over the Niagara of weaker autobio and roman a clef comics that have flooded the scene.

Apart from any question of the relative merits of The Little Mermaid, ALEX, or He-Man, Kalesniko’s efforts showed me a distinct advantage of comics over animation. With one book, he achieved among thousands of readers what Mr. Raddatz only achieved among the small handful whose lives he touched more directly. Namely, a shelf in their minds with his name on it. I only wish Mr. R. — and countless other animators — had gotten a similar opportunity. He-Man and Disney cartoons may be awesome, but what more individual riches have we missed out on?

Toth’s Condemnation

On my LiveJournal, Alec Stevens writes:

“Surprised Alex Toth liked Corben, as his proportions were all over the map, and the subject matter certainly fit the ‘dark and warpy’ vision that Toth condemned in comics’ latter days.”

Since that condemnation often comes up in discussions of Toth, I felt that this point was worth answering here, where it wouldn’t be buried in my LJ’s comments section. Many comics folk (not necessarily Alec) complain that Toth objected to anything in the arts that was “adult” or disturbing, but I think that misunderstands his views.

To begin briefly about Corben: though Corben’s work differed from Toth’s in many respects, Toth was a Corben fan from the time he first saw Corben’s comics. Even in an interview given in the final months of his life, Toth was praising Corben’s willingness to tackle tricky angles. Corben’s proportions are wonky, but judging by Toth’s influences I’d say Toth’s heart was closer to cartooning than realism, so I assume Corben’s expressiveness appealed to him.

The subject matter is a trickier question. Toth often railed against the “dark” aspects of modern entertainment, but he didn’t often provide examples of such, so it’s tough to say precisely what he was bothered by. He himself drew plenty of of horror, crime, and war stories… including scenes of nudity, bloody murder, etc. (Though not so much as Corben!) Yet he objected to working on “Torpedo,” in which the only racy or violent elements he had to draw were a few flashes of female nipple and some implied, bloodless murders.

I think what he really objected to wasn’t disturbing or racy subject matter, but rather nihilism: stories that deny the existence of meaning in the universe, and specifically the dignity of human beings. He was apparently fine with moderate depictions of horror and violence as long as they affirm that our sins or deaths are tragic, and not simply amusing or trivial. The “c’est la vie!” approach to sin and death, exemplified by Torpedo and other post-’60s entertainments is, I think, what he really condemned. In a 1969 interview, he said:

“Hollywood has been all too entranced with negativism, as has literature, theatre, television, other media, and I’m damn well fed up with it. Of course our nation and the whole bloody world is sick. But stop showing us the symptoms of the sickness. We know it’s there. Where are the serious suggestions for solutions, cures. This is what films ought to be doing, and books, and art. … If they don’t have a solution, then make another kind of film. But at least make films with some hope instead of this negative philosophy repeated on and on that the ‘common man’ is a pitiful, sick, acid-head slob.”

Returning to Corben, I’d say the reason Toth liked Corben (and Los Bros Hernandez, by the way) and not, say, Robert Crumb, was because though all four draw scenes of violence and sex, Corben and Los Bros show empathy for their scenes’ victims and lovers, while Crumb is just amused.

Late to the medium?

At my LiveJournal, someone wrote to ask the following question:

“I am not a kid anymore, far from it, but after years of half-assed attempts I am trying to learn to draw comics and visual arts in general. My final purpose would be to draw some stories I have had in mind for years and years; not saying they are great, just that I need a way to express them using my own skills and not somebody’s else. It is late for me to learn and I have been told it will be very difficult for me to become good at my age and without huge amount of time to study, but I will try. … I have been recommended Bridgman and Andrew Loomis and I am studying through some of their books even though they are certainly too advanced for me. But is there some course or method YOU would recommend to a late learner? …just wanted to know if you have one or two books, courses, online schools you would recommend to a person starting from zero, nothing.”

I don’t think it’s ever too late to learn to draw. The biggest obstacle adult students face isn’t the learning itself, but rather carving time in their schedules for art. Most people who take up art in adulthood will fail at it — not because they can’t grasp the information, but because patterns of how they spend time are hard to change. They practice art regularly for awhile, but eventually their old lifestyle asserts itself, their art is pushed aside, and their skills never improve. If you can overcome that problem, and fit some hours of drawing into your weekly schedule for the next few years, you’ll do fine. (Artist Harley Brown tells of a lady he once met who drew so well that he assumed she must have studied art from early childhood. To his surprise, she revealed that she had only been drawing for a few years. Her secret: she’d practiced for several hours a day. Few have THAT much free time, but the point is that age doesn’t matter.) Pick some activity that currently takes up a few hours of your weekly schedule, kiss it goodbye, and replace it with art.

Another common myth is that cartoonists must master draftsmanship (anatomy, perspective, shading, etc) before they can draw comics. So, students get bogged down with learning how to shade spheres and memorize bones and plot vanishing points, when they should really just be cartooning. Those other skills may be necessary to move on to the more ambitious levels of cartooning, but they aren’t primary. At its foundation, cartooning is about picking the right objects in the right moments, and drawing those — even if only badly. That’s how cartoonists like Cathy Guisewite, Chris Onstad, and Scott Adams are able to craft effective comics without drawing well. They aren’t draftsmen; they are object-and-moment-choosers. Cartoonist John Campbell takes this to its extreme: Pictures for Sad Children
You should be able to follow his lead and begin cartooning your story ideas immediately. Just divide your written scenes into the fewest essential moments (panels), and ask yourself which characters, body parts, and props ABSOLUTELY need to be in each panel. Then draw only those, as simply and clearly as you can.

Of course, to increase the appeal and nuance of your stories, you’ll want to layer in whatever useful detail your growing skills allow. A good “first steps” book to study is DRAW 50 FAMOUS CARTOONS, by Lee J. Ames. Ames’s books show how to draw characters beginning with simple shapes and adding more complex details. This book in particular is useful because the characters are familiar and they range from the simple (The Little King, Felix the Cat) to the complex (Blondie, Flash Gordon). After working through these, you could move on to designing and drawing cartoon characters of your own.

From there, the next step would be realistic draftsmanship. The best book to start with here is DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN, by Betty Edwards. Edwards teaches techniques that artists use for overcoming the mental obstacles to realistic drawing. I plan to cover this in a future Toth article, but for now, in brief: the system our brains use to handle imagery is good for storing and recalling ideas, but bad for drawing. It’s like a biological version of the the difference between hi-res jpegs and lo-res bitmaps. Typical thinking works best with “lo-res,” but realistic drawing requires “hi-res,” so artists must use certain thought tricks to switch their thought mode over to the “hi-res” way of thinking. This may sound complicated and Jedi-like, but Edwards explains it well, and it’s frankly crucial to realistic drawing. You can see the effectiveness of her techniques in this “before and after” gallery of her students’ work, spanning a five-day period. Using the techniques Edwards teaches, you can begin drawing fruitfully by observation (drawing objects you see before you, or in photos), which is every artist’s most valuable calisthenic.

After working through those books, you’ll be in a good position to absorb what Loomis has to offer. His books (especially FIGURE DRAWING FOR ALL IT’S WORTH [anatomy], SUCCESSFUL DRAWING [perspective], and CREATIVE ILLUSTRATION [the best one, about picture-making in general]) are great (and back in print!) and should provide a sound foundation for everything else your comics might need. If he’s still a bit beyond your grasp, I recommend any of Jack Hamm’s excellent how-to books, which are simpler but top-notch, and cover similar ground.

But above all, keep cartooning. Pick the crucial story moments, pick the props and body parts that illustrate them, and jot those down.