Jesse Hamm (sirspamdalot) wrote,
Jesse Hamm

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.


    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;…

  • 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…

  • (no subject)

    Been awhile! Some recent stuff:

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.