Comics

Harold Foster On Story V. Illustration


Fred Schreiber: Do you consider yourself primarily a cartoonist or an illustrator? And where do you draw the distinction?

Hal Foster: There’s no distinction. One runs into the other. Of course, I can’t “cartoon”; I am an illustrator. But where the cartoonist ends and the illustrator begins is pretty hard to say; it all hinges on the writing, on the story. In my estimation the story is the most important thing. The illustrations are just meant to give another dimnension to a story, which has to be cut down into little captions; the illustrations are necessary to carry the story on from captions. But, of course, it doesn’t make any difference how well you illustrate the story–you can get away with a good story poorly illustrated, but not vise versa.”

FS: What is your opinion of the current state of the comic strip? How would you compare it to that of the old days?

HF: It’s not as individual. Before, in the early times, each cartoonist had his own individual ideas and carried them out alone; one man did the whole thing. But now so many facets have come into it that you need assistants to do backgrounds and other things. Sometimes the work is divided between writer and illustrator. But as you take it down to each degree, it loses some of its personality, so that no matter how beautiful the drawings, no matter how good the story, somehow there seems to be something lacking that was present in the old comics. Of course, these were crude–but somehow they had more personality than they do today.”

– Interview for SOCERLID, 1969
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Although his name has passed into obscurity today, Hal Foster is the definitive force behind action comics strips. He single-handedly created the crossover success of Tarzan and then went on the write and illustrate his own work in Prince Valiant, the longest running action comic in the newspaper business. As you can see, the man’s artistic skills bring an incredible level of realism to the art form. The quality of his work makes the panels seem to move with the action.

It is fascinating, then, to see such an awe inspiring illustrator who is more interested in the telling of the story than the stunning visuals. “The story is the most important thing.” He goes on in this interview to explain that his preference of working in action comics over humor strips is not that he prefers reading them so much as it is that he loves being a story writer first and foremost. It is obviously this quality which has kept his strip alive long after his own demise.

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In even a quick overview of the original great comics, it is easy to see the honesty in Foster’s qualifications of “the old days.” The old comics were, first and foremost, essentially quirky. Each had its own surrealism, it’s own fantasy that transcended dreamscapes and talking animals. A comic strip created and sustained by one man offers a unique look into the world within another man’s head.

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Keep Reading

Bill Watterson, Michaelangelo, and Play

Samuel Beckett and The Value Of Depression

Bill Watterson On A Creative’s Ethics

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Bill Watterson On Ethics In Business And Art


Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.
To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.

As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.
The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

. . .

You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.

But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

 

– Bill Watterson, excerpts from his Kenyon College commencement speech, 1990. (Emphasis mine)

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In this age, comics are no longer part of an arts minority that deals closely with business. In there heyday, and still to come extent when this speech was written, comics and animation occupied a unique space closer to advertising. Today almost any artist in any medium, be it musical, visual, or otherwise, is encouraged to sell an image apart from the art itself. In such an interactive age, we have a hard time latching on to anything that isn’t heavily pitched and surrounded by positive reinforcements like ads and personalities. Artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have advanced graffiti as George Herriman and Winsor McCay advanced cartooning, bringing something seemingly overlookable to an inspiring level of creative genius. Graffiti is all the more potent, a form that is in itself a satire and push back against the dizzying advertising seen everywhere today. The documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop” shows just how difficult it can be to keep motivations straight when fame and fortune lies in the route of getting famous by decrying the age of adventising.

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For Bill Watterson to proclaim that there is a “good life” available that is strategically lesser in material contents and governed firstly by ethics and second by personality and skill really splits the crowd. I can think of a good number of people I know who I would expect to respond to this type of thinking with a “but can’t we be ethical while climbing ladders and gaining affluence?” Sure, I suppose you can try, but you only get one go at it. Keep your eyes open, and good luck!

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Continue Reading

Charles Schulz’s Anxiety

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Death

Bill Watterson On Playing Well

 

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, And The Importance Of Play


In the middle of my sophomore year at Kenyon, I decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of my dorm room. By standing on a chair, I could reach the ceiling, and I taped off a section, made a grid, and started to copy the picture from my art history book.
Working with your arm over your head is hard work, so a few of my more ingenious friends rigged up a scaffold for me by stacking two chairs on my bed, and laying the table from the hall lounge across the chairs and over to the top of my closet. By climbing up onto my bed and up the chairs, I could hoist myself onto the table, and lie in relative comfort two feet under my painting. My roommate would then hand up my paints, and I could work for several hours at a stretch.

The picture took me months to do, and in fact, I didn’t finish the work until very near the end of the school year. I wasn’t much of a painter then, but what the work lacked in color sense and technical flourish, it gained in the incongruity of having a High Renaissance masterpiece in a college dorm that had the unmistakable odor of old beer cans and older laundry.
The painting lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, and it seemed to put life into a larger perspective. Those boring, flowery English poets didn’t seem quite so important, when right above my head God was transmitting the spark of life to man.
My friends and I liked the finished painting so much in fact, that we decided I should ask permission to do it. As you might expect, the housing director was curious to know why I wanted to paint this elaborate picture on my ceiling a few weeks before school let out. Well, you don’t get to be a sophomore at Kenyon without learning how to fabricate ideas you never had, but I guess it was obvious that my idea was being proposed retroactively. It ended up that I was allowed to paint the picture, so long as I painted over it and returned the ceiling to normal at the end of the year. And that’s what I did.

Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.

It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.
If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.5gRpt

We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of “just getting by” absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your politics and religion become matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.

For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious six year-old each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazed at how one ideas leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander. I know a lot about dinosaurs now, and the information has helped me out of quite a few deadlines.
A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.

– Bill Watterson, excerpt from his commencement speech at Kenyon College, class of 1990.

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There are a thousand engaging reasons to love Calvin And Hobbes, but I find it is Watterson’s deep rooted sense of play that creates the transcending and nearly universal connection with readers. For all his shenanigans and misfittedness, Calvin is a kid who cherishes a passion for play and an untamable imagination. Anyone who has ever felt inspired by creativity or learning or the great outdoors can’t help but relate to what fuels this kid. While I’m not sure to what degree Watterson self-identifies with Calvin, he definitely pulled what he personally needed to maintain creativity in his daily life into the central theme of his strip. I find that the most relatable creations are often like this one, so intimately human that they defy succinct explanation.

 

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson On Ethics In Art Making

Rod Serling On Creative Censorship

Kingsley Amis and C.S. Lewis On The Value Of Sci-Fi

Samuel Beckett And The Value Of Depression

55 Classics Review # 1 – “In The Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak


“In The Night Kitchen” is one of the most unusual books I chose to include in my 55 Classics. It is unusual because I’ve nearly memorized it I’ve read it so many times and it’s unusual because it is just a picture book.

If people know Maurice Sendak’s name, they usually associate it with Where The Wild Things Are. While I also love that book, I have reasons to prefer Night Kitchen.

ITNK is part comic strip part children’s story, part nostalgia and part bizarre dreamscape. The book follows Mickey as he falls out of bed one night and into the hands of “the bakers who bake till dawn,” experiencing and triumphing through a number of otherwise horrific adventures in a place called the night kitchen. In the end he jumps off of a huge bottle of milk and slides safely back into bed.

As someone who grew up addicted to newpaper comics, it is easy to see that Sendak finds huge quantities of inspiration for the style and imagery in old strips like Little Nemo. His three identical baker characters steal the identity of Oliver Hardy of Laurel & Hardy fame. Everything about this book’s aesthetic takes cue from the culture and advertisements of the 1920’s and 30’s. Sendak’s considerable illustration skills are put to good use in a totally unique setting of his own invention.

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The second and equally critical component to this book is its beautiful, lyrical text.
It does not attempt to rhyme. Sendak even seems to intentionally avoid obvious opportunities to create rhyming texts. I believe this is because rhyming would take away from the very nature of this nonsensical story. It does not rhyme, but it flows and sings beautifully. Anyone would have a very hard time not reading this book with a sort of musical quality. My 3 year old daughter has most of the text memorized, and I hold its sing-ability as a key to her latching on to so much of its text so proficiently.

Overall, I like Maurice Sendak’s work because he was an exceedingly talented illustrator who somehow retained the ability to think like a child. He stories don’t have to have strong plot lines or heavy-handed morals, but children have and always will love them.
Why?
Because he validates their dreams, those by day and by night.

Author Quotes – Charles M. Schultz and Creativity Through Anxiety


As a child, I was obsessed with comic strips. I spent years filling spiral bound notebooks with fan fiction and rip-off strips of my own design, sprinkled throughout with drastic, emotional diary entries. I never got into comic books or super heroes, but I loved goofy, highly-stylized caricatures, political cartoons, and any form of a panel-based gag. I even indulged regularly in the eye-rolling puns of Garfield. Calvin and Hobbes was (and still is) more breath-taking and thought provoking with every reading, not to mention a great vocabulary expanding tool. Along side The Far Side, Baby Blues, Zits, Tintin, Family Circus, and many others of my preteen world were Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Charles M. Schultz.

The death of Charles Schultz was perhaps the first celebrity death I can recall impacting me. Schultz was the first person I ever researched and studied biographically from purely personal interest.

I’m not a die-hard Peanuts fan to be perfectly honest. I prefer a good simple twist in the third panel, and most of Schultz work stuck to self-deprecation or anxious social commentary in a way that most artists in the field had long abandoned. I loved him more for what he was than for attachment to his work. He was the last standing giant from an age of world-renown innovators in the field.

It was interesting then to read the following in Daily Rituals concerning Schultz.

“He would begin by doodling in pencil while he let his mind wander; his usual method was to ‘just sit there and think about the past, kind of dredge up ugly memories and things like that.‘”

And

“The regularity of the work suited his temperament and helped him cope with the chronic anxiety he suffered throughout his life.”

As I mentioned concerning Samuel Beckett, it continues to impress me that great art comes not from overcoming our troubles and idiosyncrasies  or ignoring them, but from exploring what they actually mean about us.