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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.

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TOTH'S LINE 2: INFORMALITY [Feb. 27th, 2013|05:26 am]
Jesse Hamm

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]
Jesse Hamm
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]
Jesse Hamm
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]
Jesse Hamm
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]
Jesse Hamm
Been awhile! Some recent stuff:

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Moebius. [Mar. 13th, 2012|11:04 am]
Jesse Hamm
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]
Jesse Hamm
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]
Jesse Hamm
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]
Jesse Hamm

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