Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Influences: Bill Peet

I read just about every children's book by Bill Peet as a kid. One of the reasons I liked his stuff so much was that it resembled the Disney movies that I was borderline-obsessed with. This, of course, is not surprising, since he was a storyboard man for Disney for most of his career.

Despite his having a very active, fluid, and energetic style, one of the things I liked about his books was that they had a calm, Midwestern air about them; the quality of a middle-aged man recalling his carefree youth. Bucolic countrysides, the rare thrill of a fair or circus having come to town, the pleasure of honest work, and so forth, were all well represented.

And like Quentin Blake, I loved that Bill Peet could use just a few lines and create a perfectly appealing face. Even when drawing fanciful things like dragons or sea serpents, he didn't burden them with elaborate detail or ornamentation. Rather, they were cast as people, just like the rest of the characters, and were better served by an expressive face and a loose-limbed body than by beautifully textured scales.

His stories were simple, earnest, believe-in-yourself kind of tales, and their consistency across his entire bibliography formed what were probably some of my first mental templates for stories. I liked the fact that even his simplest stories involved a full cast of characters, each with a bit of a quirky personality, and that none of the characters were immediately cute or approachable, seemingly preferring to be downtrodden, grotesque, or forbiddingly alien.

Peet's looseness and consistency, and his choice of wide angles (typically establishing Relative Position, don't you know), made cartooning an accessible and fun hobby for me, allowing me to think about characters and movement without worrying so much about choking it with detail and design. This notion is what I like to think about when I am at my most creative-- the idea of story, character, and fun being paramount.

Peet died in 2002 at the age of 87.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Influences: Mercer Mayer

As a child, I read, or had read to me, approximately ten million children's books. And looking at them as an adult, I'm surprised at how much the artwork in them influenced me at the time, as well as influenced my learning process. Of course, at the time, I had no awareness whatsoever about the tools that an artist used; I simply made note of the specific aesthetic of each illustrator. One that stuck out to me was Mercer Mayer, particularly his book series that began with A Boy, A Dog, and A Frog.

There were several small hardcover books in this series, all wordless, that basically covered a short incident that usually involved the frog causing some kind of trouble. They were pretty sweet, too, actually, as the boy always came to the defense of the frog, even if it got him in trouble.

The artwork was cartoony, but heavily textured, and like a lot of the other artists I've mentioned in these Influences posts, there was a certain sense of a reality to his world that I felt like I could get lost in. There were a number of little meaningful details in each picture that a child could really search through, making the book take sometimes even longer to read than one with words on the pages.

I was also a big fan of Mayer's illustrations in the young adult book series The Great Brain, by John Dennis Fitzgerald, for many of the same reasons, but the Frog series I had a special affection for, and I suspect it was this: a wordless series of pictures is comics. At the time I was reading these books, I hadn't really been introduced to comics yet, but the way I interacted with the stories (such as they were) in Mayer's books foreshadowed a fascination with comics that, apparently, would eventually consume my entire life.

Mayer is far better known for his Little Critter books, but he also has a great deal of gallery artwork up at mercermayer.com.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Influences: Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe

This will seem a bit silly, but one thing I loved as a pre-teen was not necessarily READING the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, but knowing that it existed. I really enjoyed the fact that every little character that showed up in Marvel Comics had an entry that talked about their history, origin, first comic appearance, strength level, hair color, base of operations, other aliases, and whether people know his or her secret identity.

Having that attention to detail in a world that is entirely in people's minds was a fantastic thing to me, and it made it seem, if not real, then at least consistent (which it probably wasn't, entirely). If you're going to escape into another universe, it might as well be a cool, well-populated one, right?

But possibly the best part of the whole thing was the covers of the deluxe edition of the series. Click on the thumbnail below to see the image (Warning-- It is 2.88 MB.)

Note in particular Mr. Fantastic's arm which spreads across something like ten issues, and the fact that the last cover leads right into the first again. Pretty cool for me as a teenager.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Influences: David Mazzucchelli

I've mentioned David Mazzucchelli before, but I can't really state strongly enough how much I admire his work and how much I looked at it (particularly in Batman: Year One) as the absolute epitome of thrilling, dramatic comics.

The most exciting thing to me about his artwork was the fact that there was literally not one more line than was needed to get the point of the panel across. No extra hatching on faces, no extra detail in backgrounds. You could read every panel in seconds, but it nonetheless slowed the eye down to tell the story at the right pace.

This panel is a perfect example. Every detail serves the story. From the open filing cabinet drawer to the file dropped on the ground, and the photo of his wife on the desk, there is no need for the captions to say anything about what is actually happening. The image tells you the whole story, and any words can address what is not in the picture. It's night, and she's requesting a transfer. Beautiful.

Mazzucchelli's willingness to leave out panel borders and let the page breathe is something that I never really caught onto when I was younger, but looking at it now really opens my eyes. This isn't the cheap trick of just blasting out big explosions so that they bleed off the page; all of the elements of the panel are still within where the panel borders would be. It's a matter of making the page a little more open and by dropping out the color of the walls and floor we instinctively focus on the characters and what they are doing rather than where they are.

One of the things that struck me about Batman: Year One was that its world, unlike other Batman comics, was a mundane one, and Batman as a character was human-sized, vulnerable, and therefore unbelievably awesome that he could do the things he did. He didn't have batcables that could just whisk him away to wherever he wanted. He had to hoof it sometimes, and sometimes he got injured. Even as a hard-to-impress 13-year-old, I thought that something as commonplace (in comics, anyway) as Batman flipping through a window or kicking a rickety old pillar in two was completely gripping, and it was all due to the fact that this artwork firmly placed it in the real physical world.

I met David Mazzucchelli for the first time about two months ago at the NY Comicon, and he was absolutely as nice as can be, but almost more importantly, he was articulate and interested in discussing the craft of comics and seemed genuinely excited about his work-- not as common a trait as you'd think for comic book artists at a convention.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Influences: E.C. Segar

Elzie Segar was a major influence on me when I was learning to draw. I had a book of Sunday Thimble Theater reprints that Fantagraphics put out in the 80s that I read over and over and over. For one thing it opened my eyes to what Sunday comic strips used to be, and it showed me that a newspaper strip could have a whole world in it, with dozens of characters and an ongoing storyline that didn't have to use 2/3 of the strip to recap.

>click on panel for entire row<

Popeye's dialogue was another thing that I thought was great at a time when my whole life was school. I mean, you learn every day the proper way to say things: grammar, spelling, pronunciation, and how not to mumble, and then this hero of the comic strip throws it all out the window. How can you not love that?

>click on panel for entire row<

From a story point of view, I loved how the basic idea was that there were a bunch of funny characters and all he had to do was put them in a situation in which they would interact and it would make a strip. Even with 12 or 16 panels to play with, each strip was about not much more than Wimpy wanting a hamburger or a duck dinner, George G. Geezil wanting to kill Wimpy, or Popeye earning and then giving away a ridiculous sum of money (the equivalent of science fiction in the Depression, no doubt).

>click on panel for larger version<

Popeye was one of the first cartoon characters that I memorized how to draw in middle school so that I could impress all my peers. I can still remember the shapes and the order I drew them in to this day. So if anyone needs an artist for the daily Popeye strip, I'm available. It'll look like a 6th grader drew it!

Finally, I loved the use of swooshy motion lines, stars, sweat drops, and tiny word balloons with tiny exclamation points, all to get across what more efficient cartoonists nowadays would use just a couple brushstrokes to do. The evidence of experimentation in the early comic strips has great appeal to me, and even reading them now one gets the feel that there is this vast new vocabulary of personal expression, if only we would explore it.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Influences: Alan Davis

It's hard to overstate how much of an influence Alan Davis was on me as a teenager. From Detective Comics to New Mutants, Excalibur to D.R. and Quinch, he was one of the perfect artists (David Mazzucchelli was the other one; he will be the subject of a future post).

Alan Davis' art had a cartoonishly clean feel and an instinct for humor that I found refreshing in a time when every artist was trying to copy Frank Miller's grim (but admittedly awesome) art style. I first came upon Alan Davis' stuff in Detective Comics #574, in which he rushed a wounded Robin to the clinic in Crime Alley. Conveniently enough, the clinic is right across the street from the corner where his parents were killed years before, and he spontaneously recalls his entire origin.

It's grim stuff, as code-approved 80s superhero comics go, but the smooth style and lighthearted physical comedy makes it not only more palatable to a young audience, but also makes it more "real" in relation to the Batman world, which exists happily removed from the complexity of the REAL real world.

At that time, Alan Davis' art was being inked exclusively by Paul Neary, whose economical linework and bold outlines gave Davis' work a weight and depth that made it both cartoonishly appealing and heroic all at the same time. Since the late nineties, Davis has been inked by Mark Farmer for the most part, and although it's beautiful work, and the heroism is still there, it is a more laborious and detailed inking style, and it lacks some of the humor and elegance of his earlier work that appealed particularly to me.

What I liked also about this work as a young cartoonist is that, with relatively few brushstrokes, it communicated multiple light sources on such things as hands or leather jackets. At the time, I didn't have the skills to reproduce it properly, but I loved the fact that he did such a good job making the physical objects look so solid and powerful, as well as making them look like they fit into the lighting of the panel.

Davis' storytelling is exemplary as well; he makes a point to widely vary the size and shape of his panels, as well as the size of the subjects within them, so that the page has a nice combination of visuals that work as both story and design. By often using borderless panels, he draws attention to the physicality of his subjects, entirely apart from their backgrounds, which, for an adventure series like Detective Comics or Excalibur, works extremely well.

Alan Davis showed me that there was something to be said for lighthearted art in a world of comics and superheroes that were turning darker and darker by the minute. He also showed me that that semi-cartoony work can nevertheless be powerful, heroic, and thrilling. That sort of combination was something that I tried to emulate pretty much every day since then.


Friday, March 30, 2007

Influences: Eastman and Laird

In the tradition of the Socratic dialogues, Kevin and I will jointly proclaim our reverence for Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Zander: I was first introduced to the Ninja Turtles by my neighbor, Mike McKenna, who said that 1) they were awesome, and 2) that the first issue was already worth something like three hundred bucks. By the time I started reading the issues, the black-and-white comics and mini-comics boom of the 1980s had begun, and there were tons of imitators and spiritual descendants of the Turtles on the racks. What grabbed me about TMNT was the roughness and rawness of their art style, and the way that you could kind of see how they were done (though the toned paper that they used was awfully mysterious to me). I liked the idea that with some art supplies, some imagination, and fifty years of monster movies, samurai manga, and other comics to crib from, you could create an entire world.

Kevin: I honestly can't remember how I got hooked on TMNT. My earliest memory is of sitting on a bus in New York and reading the "book 2" graphic novel. I'm flipping through it right now (not having done so in ten+ years) and every quip and sound effect is coming back to me. I think what hooked me on these turtles was that they were so REAL, at least compared to your standard superheroes. Flying guys in tights were a joke compared to these reclusive, aggressive thugs who bled when cut. So anyway, once I got the bug, my whole world revolved around the TMNT franchise. I spent a lot of my money on the toys, but I still remember being a snob about the comics, even at age ten. Actually, I don't remember knowing anyone else who read the comics; they all just seemed to be into the TV show and the movies. The thing that moved me about the comics was the perpetual dance everyone was always in during the fight scenes. No one could stay still. And there were so many weapons flying around, there was constant danger. I think that as a reader, I want a visceral connection to the action. So reading about fights involving guns or lasers never did anything for me because I couldn't relate to it. But watching sticks and fists and dirt flying around -- that pulled me right into the action.

Zander: I read somewhere that the paper that Eastman and Laird used (a special paper that would reveal one hatch pattern when painted with one chemical, and another, perpendicular to it, when painted with another) was so expensive that they cut the big sheets in half to save money. The result in the earlier comics was a chunkiness to the art and a slight inconsistency to the lettering that to me gave it a certain special vibe. Its lack of polish made it seem that much more wonderful; basically, it wasn't a quirky but average comic, but rather the very best minicomic that had ever been made.

Kevin: I wasn't savvy enough then to appreciate how the comic was made. But I did appreciate the stocky muscular structure of the turtles. My first ever anatomy lesson was simply drawing those figures over and over again.

Zander: In addition to the fact that it was so accessible due to its amateurish surface, what I appreciated about TMNT was that within the art you could really see a solid understanding of light and shadow, as well as anatomy, architecture, etc. I loved that, like a lot of the other artists we've talked about in the Influences posts, these guys created a solid, weighty, deep world that you could imagine people (or mutated turtles) living in.

Kevin: Speaking of "these guys," I guess we should say a few words about Eastman and Laird themselves. I still to this day can't tell the difference between the two. "Eastman N. Laird" is one man as far as I can tell. Obviously I can see style changes as I flip through this stack of comics, but I can't tell what's Laird, what's Eastman, and what's simply changed over time. In 2001 I traveled with Zander to the San Diego Comicon and he, knowing I grew up with the Turtles, pointed to a guy wearing a black leather coat and said "That's Kevin Eastman." My jaw dropped for a few seconds and then I suddenly realized, "Hey, he's just a normal guy." But of course, I was still too shy to go up and say anything to him, at least nothing that he hasn't heard four billion times already.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Influences: Kieron Dwyer

I've always liked Kieron Dwyer's work on things like Captain America, but I kind of lumped him in with a lot of other good artists whose stuff I would only pick up occasionally. But when he came out with Torch of Liberty from Dark Horse in the mid-90s, I felt like he hit a stride that made me look at every single panel with a laser-like intensity, wondering, "How does he do this sorcery?!"

*Click on the image to bring it up in more detail*

These are the first two panels of the story, an homage to Red Scare paranoia, and they do a beautiful job of establishing the scene (New York City), the characters (acrobatic WWII-style patriotic heroes), and the tone (dark and grim, though the campy writing by John Byrne undercuts that somewhat, to good effect). The thing that made me so fascinated with this work was that he used deep black shadows and imprecise, brushy inking that nonetheless gave a great sense of panel depth and texture. The buildings are distant in the first panel, without using any tricks or cheats, and the way he spotted black areas moves the eye around the panel with perfect precision. The brushy inking also allows the artist to suggest detail without having to slave over every last architectural decoration in a panel that will be read in only seconds.

I find that the thing that thrills me when reading comics is when artists create an image that communicates everything they need to communicate and nevertheless shows the reader the mechanics by which the drawing was created. That is to say-- we see what the subject of the panel is, and the panel has depth and dynamism and weight, but we also can tell that the image is a drawing; we see the brushstrokes, we can see that it is just lines on paper. That little switch that our mind makes between logic-- this is just ink on paper-- to emotion-- "that man just jumped through a glass table!" is one of the fundamental thrills of comics. It is particularly clear in Dwyer's comics; even the sound effect in this panel, which would usually be done by the letterer in a nice clean font, is integrated into the artwork, and its sloppiness adds to the power with which the Torch of Liberty hits the floor.

Dwyer also uses an impressive range of "shots" in his comics (recalling the 5 Purposes of Panels), and shows in this comic how a broad range of panel types makes for exciting reading.

I should mention that Kieron Dwyer is a friend of mine, and I told him all of this (in truncated, and drunkated, form several years ago). He continues to make awesome stuff, and you can check it all out at his site: Kieron Dwyer dot com


Friday, March 16, 2007

Influences: Julie Doucet

Alright, so it's a little hard for me to say that Julie Doucet is one of my influences since I only discovered her last fall, but even in that short amount of time I've fallen in love with her work, and kick myself for not seeing it sooner. I lived in NYC for a short period after college and having Doucet's "My New York Diary" would have been a welcome companion insofar as it would have been nice to glance at it whenever I thought my situation seemed frustrating.

Doucet's panels are rich mazes of black scratches, making them seem more like German Expressionist prints than comics panels. Doucet rarely bothers with establishing shots. Instead, she dives right into her world of medium-close square panels, each of which can be generalized as "Julie surrounded by crap."

I'm amazed by the level of detail she puts into each panel -- toys leaning against the wall, empty cans of soup and dirty plates, and cockroaches everywhere. Her constant clutter definitely enhances the voyeuristic nature of her work. I mean, It's understandable that she'd depict her art school's hallways as bastions of trash, but you'd think she'd try to pick up her own apartment just a little bit. ... Of course, a spotless apartment would take away from the "Look at me, I've got so many problems and I can't spell and I'm late on my deadlines and all my boyfriends are losers" vibe that is seemingly proof of her being a legitimate artist. The bottom line is that Doucet has put the intimacies of her life on public display, and regardless of whether that is born out of self-love or self-hatred (or a healthy mix of both), I'm happy her work exists. Most raw, risk-taking autobiographical comics that I've seen are done by well-intentioned cartoonists who can't draw, while the talented artists' stories about themselves are soft and weepy. Doucet is the best of both worlds.

Top five ways that Doucet rules: 1) Heavy blacks on everyone's faces. 2) Adorable Canadian misspellings. 3) Gratuitous nudity. 4) Flexibility with perspective. 5) Complete, seemingly unedited self-disclosure.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Influences: Matt Feazell

I first read Matt Feazell's work on a recommendation from the comics shop I frequented as a lad in Lakewood, Ohio in the 80s. It was a minicomic, probably 80 pages all bound together, and it was the adventures of a stick figure with two dots for eyes and a straight mouth that went off the side of his head named Cynicalman. He didn't want to fight crime; it was his day off.

Even at the time, I was very much into art. I loved the really detailed artists like Brian Bolland and Michael Golden, and I really appreciated complex, multilayered comics like those done by Bill Sienkiewicz. But there was something about these little stickfigure minicomics that fascinated me. They were easy to read (they couldn't have been THAT difficult!), and more to the point, they were funny and fast-paced. Since they were stripped of all the noodling around that you have to do to make complex, realistic artwork, they HAD to be funny, and they HAD to be fast-paced, otherwise what would be the point?

The stories were also something that appealed to my young self in that they were parodies of the standard notions of comic book superheroes. Cynicalman wasn't even really a superhero, except that he had a superhero name, and so everyone kept asking him to help them. The scope of the stories would range from tiny (getting up in the morning, or eating at the vegetarian restaurant) to huge (making a quiche in the Metrodome to satisfy an attacking Godzilla), and the ever-increasing cast of characters really made me feel as if this universe of little stickmen and -women was a worthwhile place to spend time.

Click for image for whole sequence

Stupid Boy, CuteGirl, Antisocialman, Dr. Pweent, Spud and Ernie (Cynicalman's fan club), and Mr. Spot were as real as any fully-rendered character at DC or Marvel Comics to me. The fact that the comics were small also meant that I could read them in different places than other comics. There was something about how personal reading them became-- particularly since not many of my other comics-reading friends could really get into stick-figure comics.

Now, years later, I run into Matt Feazell at practically every midwest convention and after having told him how much I liked his minicomics as a kid, he told me that that kid was the reason he made the comics. He wanted to make comics that didn't have to be elaborate affairs that depended on years of classical illustration training. He wanted to make comics that were quick, easy, and fun, and hoped that by that example, other people would make comics that were quick, easy, and fun, too. Sure enough, after reading Cynicalman, I started making my own 25 cent, 8 page minicomics and selling them to my friends. Now that's what I call an influence.

Click image for whole sequence


Friday, March 02, 2007

Influences: Quentin Blake

Quentin Blake
I came to Quentin Blake's work because as a young boy I was reading (or being read) Roald Dahl's work practically every week. The first Dahl books I read, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach were not editions illustrated by Blake*, but when I continued on to newer books, they all were, and that's when I read The Witches.
*and I admit it's odd now to see those newer editions in which he does.

I love every word Roald Dahl has ever written, and in this book in particular, Blake's linework was the perfect fit for it. As an adult, looking back, I can imagine what the book would have looked like without his illustrations-- possibly darker, or more realistic, but it would have been awfully off-putting for someone as young as I was to read a story that was already pretty scary (witches were murdering children!) if it had drawings that were frightening as well.

As a kid, I didn't really realize that I liked Quentin Blake's work. I thought it was too sparse, that people and things looked too weightless, and that it had the "why, anyone could do this" sort of look to it if you were not a cartoonist. But as I grew older, I came to tolerate, then like, then love, the way he would use a truly minimal amount of lines to communicate what he was after. And like Wallace Tripp, I appreciated his unabashed use of exaggeration to serve the purposes of his drawing.

I also loved his ability to draw very appealing looking people with those same very few lines. Mere dots for eyes were necessary to make someone look like a kind, affectionate person, and three more lines around it made them look like a horrible brute.

Finally, I appreciate now the fact that it looks like many of his drawings were done in about five minutes flat. I'm sure the truth of it is that he did twelve of them working up to it, but that the actual drawing you see is the result of great long years of practice, a keen mind for envisioning the final product, and a burst of creative energy. The final result has more vibrancy than could be achieved by slaving over every last line, and it draws you into his world all the more than one in which every last lamppost is meticulously rendered.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Influences at the New York Comic-Con 2007

Zander says: I'm at the New York Comic-Con this weekend, and I'll be updating with cell phone pictures of my influences that I meet at this show. The accompanying text will be brief, as I will be typing it on a numeric keypad.

Thanks to Kevin, who's posting all of these as I send them to him.

Mike Mignola
I ripped off Mike Mignola so bad when I was in high school. I did some 10-15 page stories that used all his most easily copied tricks (noses, chins, fists, lips, legs). They were really out of place in my style, but what can you do? I also completely aped his style when I did the background for the cover of Replacement God Vol. 2 Number 2. Thanks, Mike!

Bill Sienkiewicz

Jon Bogdanove

David Mazzucchelli

David Mazzucchelli is by far my biggest influence in the realm of storytelling-- I'd never met him until this convention. And meeting him made up for every hero of mine that turned out to be a dud or a jerk or who was too busy to talk. He was one of the nicest, most accommodating people I'd ever met, and articulated his thoughts on storytelling and illustration with an unpretentious air. He said that he had nearly finished a 300 page graphic novel, which makes me a little lightheaded thinking about it.

Feedback (Matthew Atherton) and I went to Grinnell College together in the 90s-- in fact, we met as prospective students while visiting the campus. He was obsessed with Spider-Man then, and would appear in full costume at practically every public event. He particularly liked cartwheeling into the dining hall on Parents' Weekend. Our senior year, he and I made mysteries for each other to solve (in costume, and often involving talking to professors at home), which he mentions on the "Who Wants To Be A Superhero?"

Kevin Maguire

Brian Bolland

Michael Golden

Rick Veitch

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

Rob Walton of 'Ragmop'

The show floor

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