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.


Some odds'n'ends.

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).


Meskin The Obscure, and The Hall of Fame

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.


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 Collapse )


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!

Common parlance.

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: Collapse )