Category Archives: Comics

Composition: Who Cares?

“Yeah, I remember those pictures. I remember looking at them as I listened to the music.”

Mom was sitting across the table from me, reminiscing.

The album in question was the Point, by Harry Nilsson. Its accompanying booklet, with tiny grayscale illustrations, was spread out in front of me.

“I didn’t really like the illustrations. They were actually kind of scary,” she went on.

She was right. Gary Lund’s illustrations for the vinyl sleeve of Harry Nilsson’s 1971 concept album were not exactly inviting.  But they grabbed me nonetheless.

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Gary Lund, Sleeve art for The Point, 1971

These are some of the most beautiful panels I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been poring over these since Saturday.  Is it the amazing draftsmanship at work? No. Is it the use of tasteful colors? Nopers.

Composition.

Look at that composition! These loose, energetic panels are actually playing together, leaking into each other, and letting the story flow organically. It makes for a visual experience that even my Mother, initially turned off by the art style, couldn’t resist.

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Gary Lund, Sleeve art for The Point, 1971

What a wild, wonderful way to present an album! It’s so much fun to let your eye wander over the landscape of broken frames, vibrant colors, and funky shapes.

Sleeve art like this almost entirely supplants the movie, as fond as I am of its cheap lovableness.

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Gary Lund, Sleeve art for The Point, 1971

Gary Lund shows us just how glorious it can be, breaking the rules and thinking outside the visual box.

This is the sort of thing that happens all the time with sleeve art- the fact that there’s no “standard” for this marginal application of illustration really frees artists up.

What’s your favorite sleeve art or album cover?

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Chat Noir

It’s a two-cup day.

I came into the office not even planning to write a blog post about the brilliant Blacksad novels by author Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido, but then I had a cup of coffee.

It’s been a while, coffee. I haven’t had you all week. I haven’t felt the mad downhill rush, the exhilirating exuberance of caffeine coursing through my drug-dilated veins in nearly a week now.

You’d have to be in my shoes to see the thought process. One cup down- what the H? What the H do I care. H, I’ll have two F-n cups of coffee. Because it’s D good.

I’m drinking the second one right now. Maybe I’ll have another after this one. Do you know how many cups it takes to kill a man? Like, 54. I’m nowhere near that.

I’ve only been in the office for 45 minutes and I’ve already written a short-story with my right-hand (I’m left handed). I feel efficient. Here comes the blog post.

Blacksad_A Silent Hell_2012_01Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: A Silent Hell, 2012

Blacksad is a terrific series of noir graphic novels, published primarily for a French market. They follow the twisted career of John Blacksad, a cat private eye with a dark past as he unravels mysteries of sinister dimensions.

What do I love about this series? A lot of things. A H of a lot of things.

Blacksad_within shadows_2000_03Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: Within the Shadows, 2000

Blacksad_within shadows_2000_02Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: Within the Shadows, 2000

First off, the animal-women in these books are smokin’, in more ways than one. Like, I mean they’re hot. And I’m not referring to their physical temperature.

Blacksad_A Silent Hell_2012_04Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: A Silent Hell, 2012

Blacksad_A Silent Hell_2012_02Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: A Silent Hell, 2012

Second off, the lighting is beautifully atmospheric. The characters move through planes of sunlight and shadow, giving credibility to a bygone world that never really existed. The visuals remind me of a good film.

Blacksad_A Silent Hell_2012_03 Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: A Silent Hell, 2012

Blacksad_A Silent Hell_2012_06Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: A Silent Hell, 2012

Blacksad_A Silent Hell_2012_05Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: A Silent Hell, 2012

And thirdly, the characters- they’re so well executed. These are the best animal-people I’ve ever seen, better even than (dare I say?)… forget it. I can’t even think of any animal-people that rival these.

Mix all of this story goodness in with themes of racism, class conflict, and religion, and you’ve got something that far transcends the realm of funny-animal comics.

Blacksad_arctic nation_2003_01Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: Arctic Nation, 2003

Blacksad_within shadows_2000_01 Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: Within the Shadows, 2000

Blacksad_arctic nation_2003_02Guarnido and Canales, Blacksad: Arctic Nation, 2003

My patience-fuse burns short. To conclude: Blacksad is great, you should pick up some of the books, especially A Silent Hell.

Thanks for reading. Thanks!

Thanks!

Clone Legion- Q&A with Gerhard

My first impulse was to ask really bland questions like “What inspires you?” and “Gee, how did you get so talented?” But then I changed my mind.

After all, this is Gerhard I’m talking to: a miracle worker of pen and ink. He’s created roughly 5,000 pages of meticulously-detailed backgrounds as a collaborator on the Cerebus books.  No one can render a scene like he can. And he’s open to answer any question at all.

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Gerhard & Dave Sim, Cerebus Tradeback Covers

So I want to know what he would do on a desert island.

Me: Imagine you’re stranded in a place where there are no people and no contact with the outside world.  What would the ideal “desert island” be, for you?

Gerhard: The location in “Cast Away” or maybe “Lost” would work just fine for me. I would prefer a deserted island rather than a desert island; not a lot of food or water in a desert. I am actually fairly close to having my own deserted island life right now. Minus the tropical weather and palm trees, of course. But I do live out in the country, away from everything, in a very small attic apartment in a century stone farm house. The main source of heat is the woodstove. The main source of wood is what is lying around the property. There’s no cable or satellite TV, no radio, and internet access is limited. If I could grow my own food, brew my own beer, ditch the phone and the computer, I would be pretty much there. Palm trees would be nice, though.

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Gerhard & Dave Sim, Rick’s Story, Issue 2282000

If you could make a hundred clones of yourself (ethical dilemmas aside), what would you set yourself to work on?

Hmmmm… hundreds of clones, eh? My first reaction would be to set them all to work completing all of the unfinished projects that have stalled. It would also be great to be able to hand off a drawing once I’ve done all the “fun stuff” and have my Legion of Substitute Gerhards ink all of those tiny little lines. A couple of them could cut, split and stack wood. But then I got to thinking that there are probably much better uses for the manpower. I volunteer at Pride Stables assisting with the therapeutic horseback riding programs and they can always use more help with the horses and riders, or with fundraising. There are a lot of worthwhile charities and causes that could use a couple of hundred helping hands. It’d be nice to keep one of them, though, for chores around here and to have him make me a sandwich.

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Gerhard & Dave Sim, Mothers & Daughters, Issue 186, 1994

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Gerhard & Dave Sim, Going Home, Issue 234, 2000

Imagine a dictator rises to power and begins destroying works of art.  If you had to pick a single piece of your work that would be preserved through the ages, which would it be, and why?

The single piece of my work that I would like to see be preserved through the ages hasn’t been created yet. I hope to be able to get to that before I die. Hmmm… those clones would come in handy.

World-Without-Cerebus-01-eGerhard, World Without Cerebus Series, Fallen Idol World-Without-Cerebus-03-cGerhard, World Without Cerebus Series, Collateral Damage World-Without-Cerebus-02-eGerhard, World Without Cerebus Series, Torn Asunder

For prints of Gerhard’s work and further info, visit his website at gerhardart.com

Visit his blog for updates on current projects!

Goodness Gracious!

So it looks like it’s a monster kind of week!  Bernie Wrightson is a comic book artist who produced a riveting series of illustrations for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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Bernie Wrightson, Frankenstein, 1983

I have a confession to make.  When I see work like this, I get nauseous.  It’s so GOOD.

Immediately, familiar thoughts spring into my mind like Jack-in-the-box demons: I’ll never be this “good”.  Why am I wasting my time?  Maybe I should quit.  Or maybe… I should just imitate this guy’s style.

When approached the wrong way, masterful work can be really discouraging.  A lot of artists deal with these qualms, and our biggest question is always:

Will we ever be this “good”? The answer being:

No, we won’t.  

For several reasons.

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Bernie Wrightson, Frankenstein, 1983

1. An imitation can never match the original.  A lot can be learned by the act of imitation, but we’ll never exceed or even equal the quality of the original in our copying; we’ll always be approaching it.

2. We aren’t “the Masters”.  Artists are made up of more than just lessons and practice; artists are molded by their lives and surroundings.  The circumstances of your childhood and adulthood shape and mold you, and in turn you shape and mold your body of work based on those experiences.  This is what makes artists (and people) unrepeatable.

I’m convinced that we have to learn from the masters, rather than trying to become them.  We’ll never be Bernie Wrightson, or Gerhard, or Katsuhiro Otomo… we’ll never get “there”. But then again, do we want to get “there”?

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Frankenstein

Bernie Wrightson, Frankenstein, 1983

We also have to be careful not to confuse “good”ness and excellence- there’s a big difference. With time and persistence, we will arrive at excellence; that’s the journey of a thousand miles.  There’s no denying that Wrightson’s work on Frankenstein is excellent.  But the book’s 47 illustrations were seven years in the making. Excellence is a journey.

But “good”ness… that’s a nebulous quality that is relative from person to person. Groucho Marx was “good” at being Groucho.  Anyone else who tries it is annoying; the only solution for other comedians is to find their own schtick, and schtick with it.

The same goes for artists.  Find what you love, and express what it means to you, to the best of your ability.  Push yourself.  Put in the hours.  Make something truly original.

Let’s re-define “good”.  Let’s be excellent.

Let’s Be Frank

You woke up one morning, and headed out the door for a nice walk.  It turned out to be a pretty average day: you dodged the sinister plots of an emaciated blue devil, rode for miles inside the husk of a spirit creature, and left an offering in the tomb of your ancestors.

If all of this happened to you recently, you might be Frank, an anthropomorphic character invented by cartoonist Jim Woodring.

Jim Cover #2Jim Woodring, Cover for Jim Vol. 2, 1993

Woodring’s Frank stories are uncanny in their dream-likeness.  Almost wordless, and nearly alien, the stories follow Frank and his friends on their bizarre and often deeply unsettling adventures through a twisted landscape.

The Frank Book4Jim Woodring, The Frank Book, 2003

The Frank Book1Jim Woodring, The Frank Book, 2003

This world (known as the Unifactor) is full of wonder and terror, and certain symbols reappear throughout the stories.  There is  dream-logic at work here that makes itself more apparent as time goes on.  The crazy thing is, the stories really make sense.  It’s tough to explain, but I find myself nodding my head at the end of each episode:

“Yup.  The man-pig died alone and unloved.  Seems right.”

The Frank Book3Jim Woodring, The Frank Book, 2003

The Frank Book5Jim Woodring, The Frank Book, 2003

Woodring manages to tap the deepest human fears and hopes, on a primordial level.  He’s released three graphic novels, Congress of the Animals, Weathercraft, and the recently-released Fran, as well as divers other smaller books.  Check ’em out.

The Frank Book2Jim Woodring, The Frank Book, 2003

Worse Than UselessJim Woodring, Worse Than Useless, 2003

The Aardvark Warrior

Last week I strolled into Copacetic Comics, on Polish Hill in Pittsburgh.  An awesome place, if you happen to live in the ‘Burgh.

At the time I wasn’t even thinking about Cerebus, a series of comics that I’d been curious about.

But it popped into my mind, and I asked if they had any issues (of the comic).

And they did.

My Cerebus collection is riddled with holes since I’m missing lots of issues, but it’s still a huge source of inspiration.

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Mothers & Daughters, Issue 199, 1994

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Going Home, Issue 233, 2000

Cerebus began as a spoof on Conan the Barbarian, but slowly evolved into a heavy commentary on pop culture, religion, life, and death.  All of it follows a terrific 300-issue story arc, which ran from December 1977 to March 2004.

The incredible, agonizingly-detailed backgrounds are the work of the inimitable artist Gerhard.  There’s a great interview with Gerhard on his techniques here.

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Mothers & Daughters, Issue 199, 1994

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Going Home, Issue 250, 2000

There’s a “masking effect” that Scott McCloud talks about in his great, great book, Understanding Comics.  This is the general idea: when you have a simple character on a complex, more concrete background, the reader projects themselves onto the character.  The character becomes a vicarious personality, a “mask”.  And Cerebus is a prime example of this.  The simple, sinuous aardvark lives and breathes in a tightly rendered landscape of cross-hatching and shadow; and you become him.

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Going Home, Issue 234, 2000

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Rick’s Story, Issue 222, 1998

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Mothers & Daughters, Issue 200, 1994

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Mothers & Daughters, Issue 193, 1994

I can’t explain how a 20-something graphic designer (me) can become an aardvark warrior stranded on the surface of Pluto, confronting his Creator.  But it happened.  Must be that masking effect.

Dave Sim also pushes the boundaries in mixing word and image.  He does more than blur the line between the two- he lights the line on fire and smokes the remains in his pipe.  The result of all this boundary-pushing is a fresh, engaging style of storytelling.

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Rick’s Story, Issue 225, 1998

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Rick’s Story, Issue 227, 1998

(The above, boys and girls, is how we do a drinking scene)

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Dave Sim & Gerhard, Going Home, Issue 260, 2001

 

Opera Singers and Psychic Children

Let me make something really, really clear.

I’m not one of those animé kids.

That said, there’s some Japanese animation and even some Manga that is truly great.  And one of my favorite artists in this field is the superb Katsuhiro Otomo.

He’s not as well known in the US as overseas, but his impact on animation storytelling worldwide is incalculable.  A prime example of this is the movie Akira, based on Otomo’s 6-volume manga of the same name.

At a running time of slightly over 2 hours, it’s quite a monster.  It’s certainly not kids’ fare- plenty of cussing, blood, psychic children, and even a giant amoeba fetus.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.  But don’t say I didn’t recommend it, either.

As dark and stentorian as this story may be, it certainly has beautiful moments.

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(Otomo, Akira Volume 1 Cover art, 1982)

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(Otomo, Akira, 1982-1990)

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(Otomo, Akira, 1982-1990)

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(Otomo, Akira, 1982-1990)

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(Otomo, Akira, 1982-1990)

wallpaper-1199740(Otomo, Akira, 1982-1990)

I realize that none of the images above were (A) “beautiful moments” or (B) from the film.  All of the above was from the Akira manga.  Let me amend this mistake:

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(Akira film concept art, 1988)

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(Akira film concept art, 1988)

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(Akira stills, 1988)

Ok, bragging time: I actually got to see some of the original cels used to make Akira.  They were part of an exhibit at the Toonseum, a terrific gallery/library in Pittsburgh dedicated to all things cartoon-related.

I’m not trying to be cute when I say that it was life-changing.  To see the craftsmanship that went into each frame of this enormous movie was really overwhelming.  And at the head of the entire hulking endeavor was one director: Katsuhiro Otomo.  The Man.

If you’re not feeling up to a 2-hour long venture into the depths of Otomo’s imagination, try Memories (1995), his trilogy of shorter animated films.  Magnetic Rose, from Memories, is an eerie exploration of human neediness, involving an opera singer- sorry if that spoils it.  I had to mention the opera singer because I put it in the title.

Otomo also directed a piece in the three-part anthology, Neo-Tokyo (1987), titled The Order To Stop Construction, as well as contributing to the much larger Robot Carnvial  (1987) anthology.

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(Memories, Cannon Fodder, 1995)

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(Memories, Magnetic Rose, 1995)

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(Memories, Magnetic Rose, 1995)

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(Cannon Fodder, Concept Art)

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(Memories, Cannon Fodder, 1995)

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(Memories, Cannon Fodder, 1995)

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(Neo-Tokyo, The Order To Stop Construction, 1987)

Between the manga and the mind-boggling animation, it’s easy to be impressed and inspired by Katsuhiro Otomo.