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Jesse Hamm

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Good Friday [Apr. 18th, 2014|02:52 pm]
Ah, Judas. Demonized for centuries as a wicked traitor, and so he was, deep down at the basement level of his heart. But I suspect that at the other levels -- the foyer, the family room, kitchen -- he was as faithful and good-natured as you or I. A patriot, with justifiable anger at the Roman occupation of his country; an activist, with the courage and initiative to combat that occupation; a loyal friend to Jesus, Israel's apparent redeemer. His portrayal in the New Testament accounts suggests all of these things. Despite the mustache-twirling treachery of later portrayals, the earliest accounts of Judas's behavior on the day before Good Friday indicate that he was up to something other than betrayal, something more nuanced and carefully orchestrated.

In the evening before Good Friday, according to the surviving accounts, Jesus and Judas and the other eleven Apostles were secretly camped outside of Jerusalem, in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Jesus had been stirring up political trouble for some time, but was too popular to be arrested publically and in broad daylight without incident. At night, though, it was necessary to hide.) Judas shared dinner with his fellow Apostles and dismissed himself to go into town. Once there, he approached the authorities with a deal: for a sum of money, he would lead soldiers to Jesus' hiding place, where they could make an arrest without making a public scene. He was then paid, and led a group of Roman soldiers to the Garden.

Had Judas merely intended to shop Jesus to the authorities, he could simply have led the soldiers to Jesus and collected his blood money. Instead, he arranged a strange bit of cloak and dagger: he alone would approach Jesus and the others, while the soldiers hid nearby, and he would identify Jesus to them by a kiss on the cheek. Why go to such trouble?

A common view is that Judas kissed Jesus out of spite. But he had no reason to spite Jesus (his oft-presumed motive was instead greed), and openly doing so would have put him at unreasonable risk, given that he was surrounded by Jesus' loyal Apostles. (Minutes later, Peter would cut the ear off a Roman soldier with a swordstroke -- Judas's likely fate had he openly insulted Peter's Lord.) I suspect that, rather than for spite's sake, Judas used the kiss to remain in good standing with Jesus and the others.

Consider: without Judas to identify Jesus, the Apostles could all have claimed to be Jesus, Spartacus-style, or could all have remained silent, forcing the soldiers to arrest and transport the entire group. (In this age before visual media, people who avoided religious gatherings -- such as Roman soldiers -- wouldn't likely have known Jesus on sight.) What's more, Jesus and the Apostles may have scattered into the darkness at first sight of the soldiers. Which one would the Romans chase? The Romans therefore needed to know from the outset which man was Jesus. And a description would not have been enough, especially in the dark. "You can't miss him. He's the bearded guy in the robe and sandals." They needed Judas to both guide them to the hiding place and identify his Lord.

Now, had Judas pointed out Jesus from a distance, the Romans would have advanced and taken Jesus immediately. The only sensible reason for Judas himself to approach the (frankly dangerous) group of men he was betraying would be that he wished to postpone the Romans' approach. Doing so would have the following benefit: Judas would appear innocent of any betrayal plot. Had the Romans simply appeared and tried to arrest Jesus, the Apostles would have rightly reasoned that they were betrayed by the one member who was absent: Judas. But had Judas returned from town alone, and approached Jesus with a friendly greeting, and THEN Romans appeared, he could claim afterward that the Romans must have followed him to the hiding place without his knowledge. His place among the Apostles would remain secure.

And a kiss was the ideal means of identifying Jesus to the Roman onlookers. Pointing, once he was among the Apostles, would have given the game away. Waving and greeting Jesus by name would have been vague, since a dozen men were present. A hug or handclasp, though more precise, could have been offered to Judas by one of the others before Judas was able to reach Jesus, cancelling its significance. The signal had to be precise, plausible, and unlikely to occur in the others' greetings. A kiss!

So with his kiss, if I'm right, Judas intended to appear loyal throughout the arrest. But why would you need a dead man and his disbanded followers to think you loyal? This motive would only make sense if Jesus were likely to survive the encounter with the Romans, and prevail over them. And here we reach the crux of the matter (pun intended!).

At earlier points in Jesus' ministry, the Apostles (Judas included) show that they believed Jesus to be a political -- even military -- revolutionary. In one town where the group was rebuffed, the Apostles asked Jesus to let them call down fire from heaven and kill everyone. (He instead rebuked the Apostles.) Elsewhere, they urged Jesus to hurry up and conquer the nation, and debated who among them would be second in command once that occurred. At this early stage in their understanding, these guys frankly thought like terrorists. It's no wonder Jesus was often fed up with them. But their attitude is understandable: their nation was brutally oppressed by foreign invaders.

With this background in mind, Judas' actions make more sense. Here was Jesus with the potential to oust Israel's Roman oppressors, but without the chutzpah to go through with it. By staging an attempted arrest, Judas could provoke a confrontation that would force Jesus to take action and begin the revolution, with Jesus and the Apostles on the winning side. And in order to keep his intentions a secret from the other Apostles, Judas would stage the arrest in such a way that he appeared to have been followed back to their hiding place inadvertently.

That all of this went awry when Jesus was arrested and executed explains why Judas, afterward, had such a sudden change of heart. Why go to the trouble and risk of selling someone out, only to return the the money and hang yourself the next day? Perhaps because you expected an entirely different result. Judas thought the attempted arrest would motivate Jesus to unleash the "fire from heaven" that the Apostles wanted to call down on that town I mentioned earlier. He saw himself and the others leading Israel to freedom under the aegis of his Lord; instead, he got his Lord executed. All was lost. Return your blood money, tie your noose; draw the curtain.

Most of my readers probably reject the idea that the Bible is inerrant or even reliable, and will therefore wonder why its accounts of Judas merit any consideration. For one thing, these accounts have curious historical implications. Had the writers of the Gospels intended to fashion Judas into a villain, fictionalizing Jesus' final days accordingly, we would expect a different account. The odd nuances I describe above would be absent, replaced by a more straightforward story of plotting, simple greed, and greater polarity between the loyal Apostles' motives and those of Judas. The authors' inclusion of these nuances suggests reportage rather than demonization. But even if we dismiss that, and take the work as fiction, it would be a fiction that shows greater depth and compassion than one expects from ancient literature. Here is the central villain of the story -- Judas, the Betrayer -- portrayed as though his goals were, like those of his fellow Apostles, essentially noble. Not the black-clad mustache-twirler of standard adventure fiction, but a tragic figure who rightly wanted to triumph over oppression, and who stupidly and fatally misjudged the means to that end. A person like you or me.
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TOTH'S LINE 2: INFORMALITY [Feb. 27th, 2013|05:26 am]

Artists often complain that their sketchbook scribbles look more lively and authentic than their finished work. "Why can't I get that magic into my finished work?," we complain, laboriously draining our finished work of that magic.

I believe part of the answer lies in the formality of the lines. Formal lines -- lines with a mechanical smoothness afforded by careful rendering -- demand attention. Their precision grants them each an air of importance. But when all of a drawing's lines carry the same regal air, IT'S LIKE A SENTENCE WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS. The eye tires of all that "importance." As artists, we sense this, and yet we keep returning to that rigid formality. Why?

For one thing, we worry that imprecision will look unprofessional. Just as we wouldn't want to address an audience with slurred speech or mussed hair, we don't want to present readers with sloppy lines -- so we compensate with fussy formality. Few subjects (and there ARE a few) warrant that suit & tie approach.

Another reason is that we tend to treat each line as its own drawing, instead of as a part of a whole. In the act of creation, when our noses are glued to the page, every square inch seems to merit great care and precision. But, as screenwriter David Mamet observes, a nail needn't look like a house to do its job. Neither must a line look finished for the whole drawing to look finished.

Young Alex Toth was guilty of such over-formality...

...but mature Toth relaxed into a more casual approach:

In fact, though Toth's work is often characterized as neat and orderly, I think this describes the feeling his work conveys, rather than the work itself. When you examine his work up-close it often looks surprisingly messy, with dashed-in lines that overlap or fail to meet:

He didn't care whether each line was perfect, so neither do we. The looseness of his lines signifies to our brains that the lines are of little importance, individually. And since they don't compete with each other for our attention, we are free to ignore them individually and contemplate the whole. The result is a whole with greater power than that of pictures in which every line clamors for respect.

Compare this Toth panel with this portion of a drawing by Burne Hogarth:

Though the foliage is dense in each image, Toth's lines appear random, excusing us from paying them much attention, whereas Hogarth's lines look deliberate and demand attention. So the informality of Toth's linework lessens the workload we bear as we interpret his image, even though each of the images above contains roughly the same amount of raw information (the number of lines) and narrative information ("heroes & foliage"). (See my prior entry on the relationship of raw-to-narrative info.)

Not only does it decrease our reading workload, informality increases the narrative information we take from the drawing. By being vague, informality frees us from locking in on the lines themselves. It instead evokes the pictured object with all the detail our imaginations can muster:

Here's how this might break down in terms of the artist/reader dynamic. I suspect Toth thought of his drawings as a sort of tent that loosely covered and thereby revealed the imaginary objects they were meant to portray. Since his lines don't always meet up precisely, the reader cannot perceive them as an object on the page, and must therefore infer the real-world object that those lines represent:

"Remember, in simple line drawings (sketches/finishes) it is often what is NOT drawn that creates visual interest! Forces the viewer to SEE AS YOU DID, the shapes of the subject matter! The viewer's EYE will 'draw in' the rest! It INVOLVES him -- he PARTICIPATES!" ~Alex Toth

By contrast, artists who create a neatly packaged object out of their lines encourage their readers to think of the group of lines itself as an object, without a real-world referent.

(This is also why the corners of eyes don't meet in manga drawings. Since the eyes are not portrayed as physical objects on the page, they more readily "live" in the mind of the reader.)

Is the lesson simply that artists should loosen their lines? Not quite. There's a difference between loose -- or informal -- lines, and plain ol' sloppiness.

When Toth's lines stray from precise accuracy, they generally err toward a "telling" curve (a curve that characterizes the depicted object) rather than away from it. The 'swing' of his loose lines emphasizes the object's basic shape. Compare his portrayal of Edd "Kookie" Byrnes with that of Russ Manning:

Manning achieves a more literal likeness, but his too-precise linework tells us his drawings were a struggle (which pulls our attention toward his process and away from the subject), and his timid shapes belie Kookie's flippant demeanor.

By contrast, Toth's shapes emphasize Kookie's jutting bangs and vulpine grin, offering a portrayal which is livelier and more faithful to Kookie's persona.

How was Toth able to emphasize the right curves? By constant observational drawing (drawing from life or photos), which filled his brain with reliable imagery. This gave him a clear mental image of the objects he drew...

...rather than the blurry, unreliable imagery retained by a less practiced artist.

Toth's hard-earned, superior knowledge of objects' appearances enabled him to hustle lines along their telling curves -- as though racing along a familiar route, instead of plodding or swerving like a driver on an unfamiliar track. This is the difference between sloppiness and informality.

Speaking of driving, join me in a week or so when we'll take a look at Toth's Hot Wheels!

Previous essays on Toth and other artists can be read at my website.
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Some odds'n'ends. [Feb. 14th, 2013|01:49 am]
Sorry not to have been updating around here; most of my art updates appear now at my website. Recently, I drew 10 pages of Hawkeye #7, currently in stores, so here's a pin-up of the character I worked on. Also, here's Kei (Dirty Pair), Storm (X-Men), and the first page of a 3-page X-Men comic I did for fun (click on the image for the rest).

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TOTH'S LINE (part 1) [Feb. 13th, 2013|09:32 am]
Looks like the new Alex Toth book, GENIUS ILLUSTRATED, is due out today from IDW. (I couldn't find any info about it at the publisher's site, but hopefully they're just playing hard-to-get.) This one covers Toth's peak years (1960 onward) and will surely belong in the library of any serious cartoonist. In keeping with tradition, the release of another Toth book has lit a fire under me to blog some more about his work. (Previous entries can be found here.) This time my post went long, so I broke it up into different sections; I'll upload one every few days.

In prior posts on Toth, I described his development and some of his compositional techniques. Now I want to focus on the skill for which he is best known: his concise linework. As critic R.C. Harvey once wrote of Toth,"He's the indisputable champion of telling simplicity in drawing. [S]ometimes, a single line tells the story, reveals motive or emotion." (The Comics Journal #185) In the same piece, Harvey quotes Toth himself on the subject:

"For the first half of my career I was concerned with discovering as many things as possible to put in my stories -- rendering, texture, detail. For the second half of my career, I have worked as hard as I could to leave out all those things."

Toth continues:

"Now, how do you leave out the right thing -- that's the secret of it."

Our goal over the next few entries is to explore that secret.


A thorough examination of Toth's technique is best begun with a few words about design, a subject cartoonists often neglect. We're all familiar with art's mimetic goals (the goal of imitating reality) and art's thematic goals (the goal of putting across a point), but design deals with art's aesthetic goals: how pictorial information is organized. Though Toth was good at the usual things we praise in comic book artists (accurate draftsmanship, smooth storytelling, etc), it was in the area of design that he reigned supreme.

This has led to confusion and debate over Toth's importance to the comics medium. A fan who values mimetic art may recognize Toth's skill at draftsmanship, but rank him lower than draftsmen whose depictions are more faithful to reality. "Toth was good, but look at the realistic detail in these pages by Russ Heath!" Meanwhile, a fan whose priorities are thematic may discount Toth for not drawing stories with weighty themes. "Toth's work may be drawn well, but it has nothing to SAY!" What both fans miss is that Toth's genius occupied a third category: the artful arrangement of visual information. He was like a pruner of bonsai trees or a planner of rock gardens, but instead of trees or rocks he pruned and arranged lines and shapes. The message of his stories was not a mere "Zorro is heroic," but rather "clarity is heroic." And by "clarity," I don't mean the sterile clarity of an instructional diagram; I mean the clarity of a poet, who attempts to clarify things without making them ordinary. To rid scenes of clutter is the task of a designer, but to do so without ridding them of wonder is the task of a poet, and this is where Toth's artistry lay.

"If you can find interesting ways to be clear, you’re really onto something." ~Steven Soderbergh

So let's look over some general design principles before digging into specifics:

Most images consist of four concrete visual elements -- lines, shapes, dark/light values, and (often) colors. These elements are the image's raw information. By contrast, the image's inferred elements -- its subject matter and its intended point -- are its narrative information. The designer's goal is to offer the greatest amount of narrative information per unit of raw information. The better the ratio of narrative to raw information, the greater narrative reward our brains enjoy for bothering to process the raw info.

The appeal of this work/reward ratio is like that of rich food: when we eat candy instead of cabbage, our body's effort of chewing and digesting is more amply rewarded with calories. Similarly, a drawing with few lines has more appeal to our brains than a drawing that shows the same things with less economy. This ampler reward of narrative "calories" is what we refer to when we call an image objectively attractive. (There are also subjective reasons to find an image attractive, such as a fondness for its message or subject matter, but that's not our concern here.) This is why Toth's drawings grab us. Our brains see the drawing, quickly grasp the relevant information, and go,"Woah, I got all of that without hardly trying. MORE!" This is also why Toth remains appealing to readers who care for neither his stories' message nor their subject matter. As film critic Mike Stoklasa is fond of saying,"You may not have noticed this technique... but your brain did."

How did Toth optimize the raw/narrative information ratio? Through good design. A good design increases differences and similarities in the raw information to reveal differences and similarities in the narrative information. For instance, a picture's most important character may be given a unique color, while members of the supporting cast are rendered in more uniform colors. This purposeful adjustment of raw information (color) enables viewers to quickly grasp the image's narrative information (the characters' roles). In the coming sections, we'll look at several such ways in which Toth accomplished good design.

First up:


People often praise a drawing's succinctness by saying that it has "few lines," but what does that mean? After all, the drawing at the left uses only one line, but the drawing on the right looks more succinct, despite using several lines.

I think the real test of linework's succinctness is not the number of lines, but rather the way the lines continue, conclude, or transfer.

A line continues when it proceeds in a uniform direction, either straight or along a uniformly angled curve:

A line concludes when it stops against a corner, or against another line, or in empty space:

A line transfers when it smoothly changes direction, or when it joins another line running in a similar direction:

Continuations of line are a similarity of raw information; conclusions of line are a major difference in raw information; transfers of line are a minor difference of raw information. So in a well-designed line: continuations mark narrative similarities, while conclusions mark major narrative differences, and transfers mark minor narrative differences.

In the tree drawings above, the tree drawn with one line has numerous corners (conclusions) and bends (transfers) -- far more than are needed to convey the narrative information that the image is a tree. Though it has only one line, that line's excessive conclusions and transfers result in a poor narrative-to-raw information ratio. But the other tree has fewer conclusions or transfers, and then only to distinguish its major parts and convey "tree-ness." Most of its lines "continue." Therefore the latter tree is more succinct and better designed. (That is, assuming "tree" is the only intended narrative. Further narrative -- "gnarled," "magnificent" -- may require more conclusions & transfers, but the principle of economy would remain the same. More on "how much is too much" here.)

(Two corollaries of the above principles are tangencies and interruptions. A tangency is a transfer or continuation that occurs where a conclusion should have occurred. Tangencies are bad design because they create raw info similarities between elements that are narratively different. By contrast, an interruption is a conclusion that occurs where a transfer should have occurred, or a transfer that occurs where a continuation should have occurred. Interruptions create raw info differences between elements that are narratively uniform.)

Back to Toth!

Among Toth's "secrets" was his ability to use conclusions and transfers (and avoid tangencies and interruptions) to clarify the narrative information his linework was meant to convey. We can best see this in comparisons between his art and that of other artists who drew the same subjects:

Above: Jack Abel (left) and Toth (right) illustrate the same scene in House of Secrets #66. Here we see random passers-by being thrown through the air. Using numerous transfers, Abel includes far more information than Toth about the folds in the man's clothing...but is it necessary? Notice especially in each drawing the contour from the near armpit to the near knee. Abel unduly interrupts the man's jacket mid-way down with a conclusion of the line. Toth, by contrast, not only unifies the jacket with a single, continuing line, but goes on to unify the pants with the jacket as well! Two objects; one line -- as if to say simply "suit."

Above: Toth and a young Bernie Wrightson illustrate the same scene in The House of Mystery #194. Note the way Wrightson's line undulates on the fingers, recording trivial curves, while Toth's line records each finger in a couple of bold arcs. Wrightson's line control was excellent, so this difference wasn't a matter of dexterity but of willingness to sacrifice detail. "Truth is beauty -- clarity -- simplicity and economy!" Toth once wrote,"It can stand naked! It needs no embellishment!"

(Click here for the image; it was messing up my formatting.)

Above: Toth's animation designs compared with drawings by Alex Ross for a toy line based on Toth's designs. This comparison is especially instructive, because in addition to using the same poses, Ross uses roughly the same number of lines as Toth used in these drawings (aside from the shirt & hair textures). So the difference in economy results not from an excess of lines in Ross's drawings, but from more curves (transfers) in the lines he does use.

Above, and throughout his work, Toth often lets his line "continue" in uniform arcs and straights along the edges of an object, as if to say,"This is all essentially the same object." His line often cuts right through places where little interruptions would occur in real life, such as wrinkles or bumps in clothing or anatomy, because he wants his raw information (the line) to emphasize the object's narrative unity. (E.g., the man's suit in the Toth/Abel comparison.) Meanwhile, he uses sharp conclusions to give character and emphasis to those details which he felt merit notice. (Note in the Aquaman sketches how Toth occasionally includes a sharp conclusion at a knee or elbow, while Ross depicts joints with nothing but transfers, granting none of them special emphasis.) And where a change of direction is necessary, but needs no special emphasis, Toth uses transfers. (Notice for example the smooth S-curve from armpit to knee on his largest standing Aquaman; Ross interupts the same contour with a creased oblique below the belt, and the hint of a hip bone.)

"Any 'transmitting' device or applied technical method, which gets in the way of the 'transmission'/message/story, etc., is a negative element, garbling that which ought to be clear and instantly understood, and ought to be simply-stated with economy!" ~Alex Toth

It can be tricky to grasp the significance of Toth's techniques because the difference between competence and excellence -- or even excellence and genius -- is so subtle. His genius often comes down to something as apparently trivial as the way a line is angled, and we may question how so slight a difference can account for anything. One answer is that our subconscious is sharp enough to detect and enjoy nuances that are hidden from the conscious mind. Another is that small features add up throughout a drawing to produce an overall effect that can't be explained by any one feature. Toth's superiority to other fine cartoonists is often just the sum of numerous tiny excellences.

That's all for now. Tune in again soon when we'll be comparing Toth's backgrounds with those of a Mr. Burne Hogarth. And feel free to comment!
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Meskin The Obscure, and The Hall of Fame [Jul. 14th, 2012|04:54 am]
I'm sorry to see that Mort Meskin was refused induction into the Eisner Awards Hall of Fame this year. I'm frankly surprised he isn't already listed in that pantheon. (Rudolph Dirks made it in? Dirks, who based his career on a watery imitation of Max & Moritz?) Though Meskin isn't as famous or beloved as many other cartoonists of his era, I do believe he's among the most significant, and I'd like to explain why.

Admittedly, Mort Meskin is not a big favorite among comics fans. He never worked on major characters, being limited to third-stringers like "Fighting Yank" and the anonymous denizens of horror and romance one-offs, and his figures have an ugly, marionette-like quality that discourages vicarious identification. He's the opposite number of approachable, crowd-pleasing greats like Alan Davis, Nick Cardy, or Curt Swan.

But what Meskin brought to comics was rooted in that very quality that deprived his characters of their appeal. Specifically, he taught us to see comics panels as abstractions: a language of blunt shapes floating on the page, rather than dioramas of nicely drawn people. Before Meskin, cartoonists drew in a curvy, sinewy fashion intended to portray rounded organic forms. Whether their aim was stark realism or goofy humor, the goal was to draw credibly three-dimensional figures and imbue them with life. Meskin, too, initially pursued this goal, as one can see in his work from the early '40s. But throughout that decade his work underwent a strange evolution. He became less concerned with conveying three-dimensionality, and more concerned with balancing shapes against each other on a flat, two-dimensional plane. His lines no longer dovetailed together at the corners of a shape in a way intended to establish that shape as a real object. They instead met roughly, like the corners of loosely drawn letters. His drawing became like kanji -- like writing.

The effect of this change was off-putting, because it suggested to readers that the scenes portrayed were not happening before their eyes, but were instead more like written pictorial accounts of what happened. These weren't the immersive fantasies of more popular fiction -- like those beautifully realized in the art of Hal Foster, for instance -- but crude diagrams of those fantasies. It's as though Meskin had traded drawing comics about heroes for drawing comics about the lines and shapes he had seen in comics about heroes. (A similar shift had occurred already in gallery art, where painters like Picasso and Matisse drew diagrams of nudes instead of nudes. Notably, Meskin's only spiritual brethren in comics were influenced more by gallery art than by comics: Garret Price, Jesse Marsh, Lionel Feininger....)

To be sure, a similar codification had been occurring in comics long before Meskin. For example, Billy DeBeck's comics obviously didn't depict human beings in a strictly literal sense. But it was with Meskin that this trend turned the corner and became a thing of its own. Pre-Meskin cartoons still clung -- however loosely -- to conventions of literal shapes and emotive faces. When you drew a cartoon person, you drew an exaggerated, simplified version of a physical person; the intent was still to mimic an object in space, and one with personality at that. But when Meskin drew a person, he drew an assortment of shapes: a lovely dance of black/white/black/white/black. His abandonment of literal conventions cut the final dock-line between the ship of cartooning and the port of representational art.

What is the advantage of this approach, if any? Is it just a bunch of arty-fartying around? The advantage is that it pushes the language of comics beyond clunky literalism and up into a jet stream of fluid comprehension. Once the reader becomes accustomed to the strange idea that drawn lines aren't meant to BE the object they represent, but that they can merely REPRESENT that object, the reader's ability to comprehend drawn information flashes forward. It's like that moment in the distant past when (according to my sloppy and probably false idea of history) a Chinese scribe first realized,"I don't have to DRAW a house to denote a house; this house-like configuration of lines can simply MEAN a house." With that revelation, writing -- and, more importantly, reading -- suddenly became much easier.

Meskin's breakthrough didn't go unnoticed by his fellow artists. Three artists in particular show heavy signs of his influence: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Alex Toth. Toth was arguably the most influential DC artist of the 1950s; Kirby and Ditko were the most influential Marvel artists of the 1960s. All three powerfully influenced not only the American mainstream, but alternative and foreign comics besides. If Meskin's influence on those three artists was as strong as I believe it was, then he indirectly fathered more American cartooning styles than anyone outside of the newspaper strips, and he absolutely deserves a place in the Hall of Fame.

So did Meskin influence those powerhouses? Toth and Ditko have enthusiastically confirmed Meskin's influence on them in print, but the case of Kirby is more tricky. To my knowledge, Kirby never cited Meskin as an influence, and in fact Meskin did cite Kirby as an influence, so one could argue that the influence flowed only from Kirby to Meskin, not vice versa. But Kirby and Meskin's work during the '40s suggests otherwise. (At least, as much of it as I've seen. Due to the scarcity of reprints, I haven't had a chance to compare a thorough sampling of Meskin's '40s work with a thorough sampling of Kirby's, but the trend as I see it is that Meskin's work veered toward geometric abstraction sooner than Kirby's.) Kirby began the decade drawing in the conventional fashion. His figures were sinewy and organic, a la Lou Fine or Alex Raymond, as were Meskin's. But midway through the '40s, Meskin's work started to take on an oddly geometric, abstracted quality. By the end of the decade, after working side by side in a studio with the evolving Meskin, Kirby's work, too, had become strangely blocky -- much more like the Kirby we all know and love.

This new style of Kirby's matured during the '50s in stories like Boys Ranch, and then achieved even greater power during the '60s on titles like The Fantastic Four. Kirby's figures by then had a rocky, geometric, robot-like, inorganic quality that made them all kin to The Thing. This quality -- to which Meskin had apparently opened the door -- is what elevates Kirby's characters from strongmen to gods. Their visual inhuman-ness (pun intended) grants them permission to be more than human in our minds. Imagine how much weaker Kirby's art would have been had he tried to draw his characters in a conventional, organically three-dimensional manner. Imagine if Galactus or Apokolips -- or MODOK, or the Juggernaut -- had been drawn by Lou Fine or Hal Foster or Curt Swan! In fact, we don't have to imagine that: we can see it in any number of proficient artists who try to draw like Kirby without understanding what Kirby was doing. Every time we see a non-Kirby drawing of a character designed by Kirby but with rounded-off, realistically-rendered muscles, looking like a pro wrestler instead of a mythic totem, we get a taste of how Kirby's art may have turned out without the needed abstraction. Which is to say: without the influence of Meskin.

Meskin's geometric abstractions helped make way for Kirby's mythic superhumans, for Ditko's awkwardly angular Peter Parker and dimension-defying Dr. Strange, and for Toth's austere, modernist elegance. He influenced the pillars of the American mainstream and re-introduced the language of hieroglyphs to American comics. That he isn't already in the Hall of Fame perhaps only shows how broadly pervasive his influence was.

But it sure would be a good idea to put him there anyway.


Interested readers should check out the art book/biography "From Shadow to Light: The Life & Art of Mort Meskin," which I'm currently reading and enjoying, or Out of the Shadows, a collection of Meskin comics which I haven't read but looks promising.
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(no subject) [May. 19th, 2012|08:40 am]
Been awhile! Some recent stuff:

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Moebius. [Mar. 13th, 2012|11:04 am]
Saturday left us without Moebius, one of my favorite artists. Cancer, cancer... there goes Dave Stevens, Dylan Williams, Moebius, and so on.

But let's discuss the good.


The thing which first attracted me to Moebius's work, and which I still admire most about it, was that Read more...Collapse )
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Process [Feb. 28th, 2012|03:08 am]
Here are some prelims for recent pics I've done, starting with the "Witch Hazel" pic from my Cartoon Redheads blog.

This first one is a rough to get the feel of the overall shape of the figure. I establish the simplest outside edges first, and then carve out the negative spaces (such as where her legs part), like cutting into a pie.

I did this next one to give myself an idea of what the main lines would look like. As you can see, her feet didn't line up at first. I later decided that it would look better if the toes of both her feet all followed the same arc (which you can see in the diagram of the final version at the left).

Here's my first attempt at her head, followed by the version I ended up with, in which I tried to make her look less "Sabrina" and more mischievous.

Here are a couple of hat designs. Chuck Jones's original design was more cartoony, so he got away with placing the hat on her head like a coin on an egg, but since my version is slightly more realistic, I had to figure out a sensible way to fit her hat onto the dome of her skull, without intruding on her bangs or ponytail.

And here's the rough of my Viveca Lindfors portrait. (I didn't end up doing a rough for the Lisbeth Salander portrait. The final versions of realistic portraits take longer than the finals of cartoon drawings, so I don't always have time to mess around with roughs beforehand.) In this rough, I'm getting a feel for the three-dimensional shape of her head, and the shadow pattern.

And that's that!
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Common parlance. [Feb. 24th, 2012|07:46 am]
Yesterday I read this article by Heidi MacDonald, in which she discusses the enormity of the current market for fan art (that is, art which features trademarked characters without permission). Various interesting points were raised, but what struck me most was this reply from artist Ulises Farinas, whose fan art sales Heidi mentioned in her piece:

"After reading this article, i have to admit i feel a little weird. But my only response is, nobody looked at my work until i started drawing black-market licensed work. It is sad, but i gotta pay bills. And if i draw a lego-dude as Green Lantern, everyone is impressed. But if i just draw my own work, everyone’s just 'eh'."

With uncommon frankness, Ulises describes a problem that has troubled artists throughout history: Read more...Collapse )
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(no subject) [Feb. 19th, 2012|08:42 am]

Debating whether to devote the requisite free time to that next Toth post. All in favor...?
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