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Jesse Hamm

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TOTH: CARTOON/REALISM and FLAT-PACKING [Oct. 12th, 2015|03:31 am]
Jesse Hamm
Welcome again to more ruminations on the drawing techniques of Alex Toth. I've posted several essays in recent years on Toth's skills and methods; those essays can be found here, here, here, here, and here. (Also, two bits I wrote on his tastes and personality can be found here and here. And, for Comics Journal subscribers: an obituary I wrote for that magazine here.) This time, I'd like to discuss the way Toth melded cartooniness with realism, as well as his approach to rendering three-dimensional objects without the usual depth indicators.


Among the traits that most distinguish Toth from other comic book artists is his willingness to unite realism with cartooniness. Most comic book artists fit into one camp or the other: the 'realists' seem reluctant to sully their hard-won realism with cartoony stylings, and the 'cartoonists' fear either the hard work of achieving realism, or the stiffness that so often accompanies it. By embracing both realism and cartooniness, Toth was able to give brio to his realism and authority to his cartooning, telling stories with both the alacrity of cartoons and the gravitas of more serious fiction.

Compare, below, Toth's drawing on the left with a drawing, by fellow cartoonist Jose Salinas, on the right.

Both drawings are skillful and show a thorough grasp of realism, but Toth's is simpler and therefore slightly easier to read. Salinas seems to have been among those cartoonists who grew up emulating the great line artists of books and magazines, such as Charles Dana Gibson or Joseph Clement Coll. There's a busy-ness in that style of linework that, though impressive in a single image, grows tiresome over the course of a comic story. It's like gothic lettering: attractive on a novel's cover, but wearisome if used throughout.

The classic remedy to such busy linework in comics is to cartoon: to render the narrative in a simple, exaggerated style. Most 20th Century cartoonists known for their storytelling have used a cartoony approach: Carl Barks, E.C. Segar, John Stanley, Frank King, Harold Gray, Walt Kelly, Chris Ware, Herge, Tezuka, etc.

However, there's often an unfortunate side-effect to using a cartoony style. We have long been taught that drawing "cartoony" means giving characters infantile proportions and behavior. Cartoony drawings usually entail traits like clumsiness, cuteness, big heads/eyes/feet, rubbery limbs, and silly behavior.

This is reflected, for example, in the way Toth's colleague Pat Boyette portrayed the spectrum of cartoony to realistic:

Notice that, as he becomes more cartoony, Boyette's caveman also becomes more child-like and silly, implying that silliness and cartooniness are related. The connection we typically sense between these two things has long been fostered by popular media, but it has no basis. There is no necessary connection between the cartooniness of a drawing and the maturity of its subject. A figure may be simplified and exaggerated, but its features can still be adult: small head/eyes/feet, long limbs, angular joints & muscles, etc.

Artists outside of comics have understood this for ages. Note the simplicity and exaggeration of these non-silly cartoons:

Themes as diverse as majesty, horror, and sophistication are on display in these cartoons, yet without silliness or infantilism.

Toth, too, understood that cartooniness is not silliness or immaturity, but a technique: the exaggeration and simplification of shapes to make a point. Compare the Toth drawing at the left, from Hot Wheels, with a similar drawing on the right, from Archie:

Both characters are drawn in a simple, exaggerated style: few details, mouths and noses drawn with a mark or two, humongous chins, and hair "helmets" with little texture. However, Toth's face has a sharp-featured quality that suggests seriousness and commands respect, while the other face looks like he belongs only in a humorous context. Toth here uses simplicity and exaggeration without demeaning his character with the giant eyes or chubby cheeks of a child.

Compare, too, these Toth drawings of a chubby man in a suit with these other artists' drawings of Archie's Mr. Weatherbee:

Both sets of drawings are similarly simple and drawn with few lines, but Toth's use of proportion (beady eyes!) and posture conveys seriousness, not frivolity.

Of course, no Archie artist can be faulted for giving their characters a humorous spin. But it's hard to find ANY examples of cartoony comic art that don't treat characters as humorous and infantile. Part of Toth's genius was to enjoy the liberties of cartooniness while side-stepping the tendency to infantilize his characters.


Some of you will recall a point I made about depth in a previous essay, where I discussed the Z-axis. I expand on that point below. This time, the focus is not on Toth's technique of angling objects toward the viewer, but on how he rendered those objects once they were so angled.

First, some background on perception and common technique.

Typically, when we picture an object in our minds, we default to a flat, straight-on image of the object. For instance, if asked to picture a MAN, or a HAND, or a CAR, we will picture something like the following:

This is because it's easier for us to conceptualize and remember objects in the simplest, most representative fashion. We store objects "flat" in our minds to save space and for quick reference. Like IKEA furniture!

However, a primary challenge of drawing is to represent objects in three dimensions. To do this, the artist must resist the flat-packed default which is common to most people, and try instead to visualize objects from various perspectives, such as these:

This practice is very counter-intuitive, and accounts for much of the difficulty people have with drawing. Your EYES may record an object foreshortened, but your BRAIN keeps wanting to force the image into its usual flat-packed state, resulting in drawings that tend to flatten out. This tendency can be seen in children's drawings, as well as in drawings from cultures where drawing in depth hadn't yet been mastered:

To combat this flatness, students of art are taught various depth-indicating techniques. Among them is what might be called SWELL-CREASING (for lack of a better term):

This technique entails giving the planes and contours of an object a rounded, swollen quality, like overlapping hills, which emphasizes the fact that parts of the object either crease inward or swell outward.

Another such technique is TAPERING:

The ends of lines are tapered, and the middles thickened, to give the object a weighty, bulgy quality.

A third technique is CONTOUR HATCHING:

Shading is added that wraps around the contours of the object to indicate its roundness and three dimensionality. You can also see Salinas use this approach in his gaucho drawing, above.

Now, these depth-indicators are like the adverbs of the drawing world: they can be usefully descriptive, but they clog the work if used constantly, and are often a lazy substitute for smarter planning.

Unfortunately, cartoonists -- especially those of the "realistic" school -- find it difficult to do without depth-indicators. "They make everything seem to pop out! So alluring!!! CAN'T...STAHHHHP....!!!!!" Some even feel that the absence of such techniques in a drawing is a sign of laziness or inexperience.

Which brings us back to Toth. A common refrain among his admirers is that they initially found his work "plain" or "boring," and only later came to appreciate what he was doing. I think this is mainly because Toth so often eschewed common depth-indicators. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," and often a reader with a knowledge of depth-indicators (but not their pitfalls) will note their absence in Toth's work and deem it lacking. "Where are the bulges and creases and tapered lines?" they seem to ask. "Where's all the contour hatching?" Even some of his inkers appear to join in. (Mike Peppe!)

Compare this Tarzan face on the left, pencilled by Toth and inked by a young Mike Royer (hired to imitate the detailed style of Russ Manning, I should add), with these faces pencilled and inked by Toth on the right:

Notice, in the Royer-inked drawing, the lines near Tarzan's mouth, nose, and cheek. These lines seem to be the inker's attempt to add depth to Tarzan's face, through swell-creasing. But in the Toth-inked drawings, we see that Toth himself often deemed such lines unnecessary.

This lesson is seen again and again in his work. Toth knew the importance of resisting the brain's flat-packing of objects, but he also knew the importance of the "easy storage" that results from flat-packing. So, after re-positioning objects in foreshortened angles for depth, he would often allow their contours alone to convey three dimensionality, instead of using swell-creasing, tapering, or contour hatching.

Check out these hands drawn by Toth, and compare them with the hands above.

Many comic book artists understand the importance of angling objects for depth, but few can resist getting carried away and rendering everything for depth as well.
Toth was among the few.