by Jimmm Kelly
the primal primer
Going back as far as I can remember, I always liked to draw. Sometimes I drew on the walls–which my parents didn’t like. When we went to visit our aunt and uncle, after the big feast, the grown-ups and the older kids would sit around the fold-out card tables and play games like Hearts or Bridge or Cribbage. But I was too little to play such games, so my aunt set me up at a little desk with some paper and art tools from her art kit.
This was the LEARN TO DRAW WITH JON GNAGY art kit. Jon Gnagy was a popular artist on TV for many years who showed people how to draw. I don’t know if my aunt ever used the kit herself (she and my uncle, being childless, were constantly piling up things in their large house, much of which was never even opened). But I loved this kit with a passion.
I would sit there with the pencils, pastels, charcoals and gum eraser having fun drawing. The thing I remember drawing the most was fishes–which were easy to do.
Then, after I started going to elementary school, I discovered the most amazing book in the school library. I wish I knew the title so I could track it down. It was a big book full of different sections for the entertainment and education of little children.
It had puzzles in one section–like Mary is married to Bob, Hal’s wife is a red-head, Jennifer plays football on Saturday . . . who is Hal’s sister-in-law? And in another part of the book, there was a section on cartooning.
While I’ve never found that book in my grown-up life, I think I know who the artist was who did the lessons on cartooning: George Leonard Carlson.
Carlson is best known for the work he did on Eastern Color’s JINGLE JANGLE COMICS [Nos. 1 (February ’42) – 42 (December ’49)]. Harlan Ellison sang his praises in Comic of the Absurd–the eleventh and final chapter in ALL IN COLOR FOR A DIME (’70, Ace Books).
A few years ago I found a Dover publication that republished a book on cartooning by Carlson and his illustrated instructions immediately brought to mind that elementary school library book. The Dover title is LEARN TO DRAW COMICS (2002), but the original title was DRAW COMICS! HERE’S HOW by George Leonard Carlson (’33, Whitman Publishing).
In this book I found lots of practical, common sense suggestions for how to do the funnies. Carlson takes you through the whole process from start to publication. It’s absolutely the best guide for creating comics–and it was published 80 years ago!
In scans I have for the first four issues of NEW COMICS, from ’35 – ’36, published by National Allied or National Comics (the precursor of DC), there’s these Cartoon Corner pages which look a lot like the pages from the Carlson book. But these aren’t reprints from that earlier work. They are signed by someone named Stanley, but just who Stanley is I’m not sure–but the art instructions look the same as Carlson’s.
I gather these are new pages done for NEW COMICS–or for NEW FUN, since the first Cartoon Corner suggests it was intended to appear in that National Comics magazine.
Whether Cartoon Corner continued to appear in further issues of NEW COMICS, I’ve yet to determine.
But at the same time there’s a feature on cartooning in the February ’36 issue of MORE FUN (No. 8)–the retitled NEW FUN–by another artist signed as Shows (?), but the Grand Comcs Database identifies this as John Patterson. This feature is Lesson IV in the Monthly Cartoon Lesson, so I assume there were similar lessons in previous issues.
In THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS 2 (’72, Fantagraphics), Jim Steranko reprinted a similar page on cartooning by Plastic Man creator Jack Cole. This is from around ’37, so after Carlson’s book had come out. I suppose Carlson, Cole and the others were drawing from the same pool of essential knowledge shared by all cartoonists at the time.
do as i do, not as i say i do
There are lots of how-to books. The how-to book trade is one of the most profitable in publishing, even in a time when publishing is struggling for every dollar. You can’t go wrong telling someone else how to do something–even when what you tell them is wrong.
It’s not so much that a lot of cartoonists give you wrong information as they don’t give you the whole story. Like I say about Charles M. Schulz–when he displayed his ability to toss off a drawing of Charlie Brown in seconds–see BOTTOM OF THE 9th–this appeared to be a parlour trick–some stunt to wow the crowd. But does it really show you how to draw?
likewise with chuck jones: how to draw bugs bunny–
Even my hero, Jon Gnagy, was all about cones and circles and squares. He was a salesman, as well as an artist–and that was the gimmick he used to sell his product. The main thing I picked up from Gnagy was how to shade your drawings, such as using the side of your pencil. Or my favourite method, using my thumb. The geometric shapes didn’t come in too handy for me.
Gnagy had an interest in getting people to draw. But most artists that show how they draw aren’t giving away their best secrets. They’re just doing it to impress their audience. Carmine Infantino is my favourite comic book artist, but I take with a grain of salt his feature on How I Draw the Flash, which appeared fifty years ago in THE FLASH ANNUAL (’63) [issue No. 1 ostensibly, but since the Annual program ended after this, it’s really the only issue].
Like with every other artist who purports to tell you how to do it, Carmine starts with an egg shape and some cross lines, then some added detail and FLASH! a finished drawing. But how does he get there, really? Magic?
And because these artists make it look like magic, the effect is to de-moralize the young would-be artist, rather than build up his or her confidence in their own abiliity.
Likewise with Carmine’s Flash figure, there are a lot of gaps in knowledge that such quick sketches don’t reveal. The tips on drawing the Flash in super-speed motion are more useful–and it’s good to know about speed lines. However, most of this is already obvious in any issue of THE FLASH.
Copying the artist’s how-to example isn’t going to give you the knack for drawing. These artist are doing something else, besides what they tell you they’re doing–and I suspect a lot of them didn’t bother with the egg shapes and squares and cones every time they had to draw something.
One book that answered a lot of my questions about how the comic books are made was THE AMAZING WORLD OF SUPERMAN: METROPOLIS EDITION (’73).
This was a giant-size tabloid comic book from DC that they did specially for the Amazing World of Superman–a theme park in Metropolis, Illinois, dedicated to the Man of Steel.
You may not have seen this theme park, few have. It exists mostly in the imagination as the good people of Metropolis lost the funding to bring their dreams to life. The METROPOLIS EDITION shows some of what would have been there, if it had been built.
The cover of the tabloid leaves something to be desired and the interior is all in black and white–except for the glorious colour fold-out Map of Krypton which I had on my bedroom wall for many years–but the METROPOLIS EDITION is full of goodies.
I sent away to DC for my copy which must’ve cost more than the two dollar cover price–once you factor in the shipping and handling charges, the currency conversion and the cost of the money order–a lot to pay for any funny book in those days, but boy was it worth every penny.
There was a long section in this tabloid that gave the reader a behind the scenes peek at the DC offiices and how a typical issue got made–from the type-written script to pencilling, lettering, inking, colour production and off to the printing presses in Sparta, Illinois–not so far from Metropolis.
The tabloid might not have fully answered how Curt Swan comes up with those beautiful drawings or why Murphy Anderson is able to skillfully use a brush to create such amazing india ink contours, but it answered a lot of my other questions about the how and the why of funny books.
the complete book of cartooning
Another how-to book I found, but too late, as it didn’t come out until after I had finished high school, was THE COMPLETE BOOK OF CARTOONING (’77, Prentice-Hall) by John Adkins Richardson–a comic fan turned pro. This was like the ’70s answer to Carlson’s DRAW COMICS! HERE’S HOW. Adkins Richardson takes you through every step of how comics are made, using examples from all kinds of strips and books.
But where Carlson’s text was less than 60 pages, Adkins Richardson’s text is more than 200 pages. And where a cartoonist in the ’30s could get by using simple tools in a modest make-shift studio, the cartoonist in the ’70s would need to lay out some serious cash to afford all the suggested materials in THE COMPLETE BOOK OF CARTOONING.
Just the same, THE COMPLETE BOOK OF CARTOONING is a dense resource of information. In addition, the author talks a lot about theories of composition and style throughout the book, which lends greater depth to what might seem a superficial art.
what they don’t teach you in school
Speaking as someone who is not a comic book professional and has never made a livelihood from drawing funnies, if there’s one thing I learned about cartooning, it’s that most how-to lessons didn’t tell me the things I really needed to know. Maybe if they had I would have become a pro. Whatever I did learn when I was a little kid, I had to work out for myself, just by looking at the way different artists draw the funnies.
Here’s some tips I taught myself in my childhood. A lot of this you might assume to be obvious, but to assume makes an ass out of u and me.
1. Eyes are tricky.
Eyes look different from the side than they do from the front. Up until I realized this, I was always drawing eyes the way they looked from the front. Even once I figured out that things change, depending on what angle you view them from–which is an important lesson for anyone who wants to draw–there was still the problem of how to do that.
I seem to have figured out the thing with the eyes around ’67. My Big Little Book from Whitman–DICK TRACY ENCOUNTERS FACEY (’67) written by Paul S. Newman, with pictures by a Chester Gould ghost–bears witness to this fact. I realized that there was something weird about Tracy’s eyes and I tried to fix it on some pages of my book. I made lots of other corrections, as well.
This isn’t really about how to draw things in real life–I’ve never seen a funny book ear that looks like an ear in real life–it’s more about how to represent something on paper. The thing that bothered me about Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy is that it didn’t correspond to studied observation of the real world. The lesson here is that the real world and art are two completely different things.
2. There are two sides to everything.
Just like in a police mug shot–a face can be seen from full on or from the side. Drawings by little kids use these two different views–which gets them in trouble, because those views don’t look right.
At a certain age in life, kids get focused on trying to draw things the way they see them. Before that stage, children have their own abstract impressionism style, but then they get locked into making things look like what they see and that trips them up. They have to learn that drawing is really about deceiving the eye.
Comic artists don’t use full-face views very often. What they use instead is three quarter views–or in the case of Charlie Brown, I would say Schulz used a seventh-eighths view–we never see Charle Brown full on–his nose is always either pointing left or right, but never head on.
There are a number of reasons for why this happens, but one is that something seen head on looks flat. Profiles also look flat–this is why the usual views used by kids don’t work. They look like outlines on a page.
Take a box–head on a box looks exactly like a square. Same things happens if you draw a box from the side. But use a three-quarter view and it’s clear that it’s not a square, it’s a box.
You have to do other things, to make full face shots and profiles pop out so they appear three-dimensional. Artists use shadows or line weight. Line weight is kind of like shadow. By putting more weight on one line than another, you sort of indicate that the heavier line is more in shadow and you have to think about things like light sources. But here’s the point, all this shading isn’t just to be artsy–it’s really so your picture doesn’t look flat.
3. You see what you don’t see.
This is really something I learned from DENNIS THE MENACE 78 (May ’65). But it wasn’t something explained in that mag’s gude on How to draw Dennis and his parents. The how-to never points out the details left out and yet it’s clear to a keen observer that the Dennis the Menace artists leave out as much detail as they put in.
On the neck for Dennis and his Mom, you can see that a line is left out on one side. as contrasted with Dennnis’ Dad where lines are drawn in on both sides. This is a kind of line weight thing, too–where the line weight on one side of the neck is so light you don’t see a line at all.
There’s a lot of that going on in Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace– a lot of gaps in art that your eye fills in, as well as use of line weight. The inking here is just as sophisticated as Dick Giordano’s on Wonder Woman or Joe Kubert’s on Tarzan. And since I was reading Dennis long before I discovered those two other dudes, this is where I first noticed that kind of thing.
How is it possible that we see something that isn’t there in between the gaps in the line work?
It turns out that our brains fill in details that we don’t see. I don’t know if this is true, but my gut tells me that if something engages your brain in creating a mental image, then it makes a stronger impression than if the brain doesn’t have to interpet the image.
There’s this kind of leaving out detail like you see in Dennis the Menace or Kubert’s Tarzan. There’s also the polar-bear-in-a snowstorm kind of leaving out detail, where you don’t show anything.
This is a central point in THE LITTLE PRINCE (LE PETIT PRINCE) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. We are shown a shape that is not a hat and told this is a snake that swallowed an elephant, or we are shown a box and told something is inside the box.
Kurt Vonnegut also made use of such deceptive imagery in his BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. I won’t tell you what this is–
4. You could’ve just said so.
Here’s a big lesson I learned when I was around eleven years old. Up until then I was always trying to draw pictures of the ideas I had in my head. But this was a long process. I had to draw everything to get out the story in my head. Let’s say there’s a man driving a car, he goes really fast, and he collides with a tree, then he has to get out of the car before it bursts into flame. Do you know how long it would take to draw that? Even a good artist probably couldn’t draw all of it in under an hour. But it took me less than thirty seconds to write it down!
That’s what I realized. It takes a long time to draw stories, but it takes a lot less time to write them. The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words is misleading.
It seems to me it’s not the job of the artist to tell the whole story. It’s the job of the artist to pick the best moments from the story and draw those. The writer’s script and the reader’s imagination will fill in the expository gaps that connect one moment to another. Some fans complain about the use of long captons and expository dialogue or thought balloons, but those save the artist the trouble of trying to explain every action through the art alone, leaving the artist more space to punctuate the significant points in the story.
5. Drawing Superman is easy.
Drawing Superman like Curt Swan is hard, but drawing your own Superman isn’t so difficult, because Superman can be reduced to simple diagonal lines and curves.
I had a chalkboard as a kid and I realized by just scribbling with chalk–while looking at Wayne Boring’s Superman in profile–that I could make the profile with some simple slashes / and a 5. And Superman’s curl head on looks like an S.
Drawing isn’t hard. If people can manually make letters and numbers, then they can do the same shapes for drawing people and objects. Letters and numbers are pictures anyway. When I was in grade 1, I thought the numbers were each characters. I got so caught up in the stories of these characters on my artihmetic tests that I never finished on time and usually didn’t get the answers right:
1 + 5 = 3
The mistake we make is thinking that we have to draw like some artist who has had years of practice drawing in a certain style. Or that our art should fit some pigeon-hole of what’s good.
Drawing is just about letting yourself scribble whatever you like. And if you do it long enough, it starts to look like something.