Blog history

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

ingmar_bergmanThe first time I saw an Ingmar Bergman movie, I was in college. I remember sitting on the steps outside the big theater building before the movie started. I was with my friend Charlotte. It being the first days of September, the light reached well into nighttime, and it was warm and pleasant outside. We talked while we waited for the doors to open. I looked up, straight up and saw a flock of birds overhead. I tilted my head back and saw the top of the theater building, a huge concrete slab of a building, at the top of my vision. The birds appeared to come out of it; a bird explosion. The birds kept coming long after I expected to see an end of the group. I thought the flock would flock out, but there were hundreds of birds. After what may have been a whole minute of birds, we finally saw the end of the flock. It was an amazing moment. Then we went inside and saw The Seventh Seal.

There were four reels (I think) of film. The reason we noticed was because the projector couldn’t handle more than one reel at a time, so every twenty minutes or so they had to change the reels manually. The print was worn, too, making the black and white images seem even more distant. The movie takes place during the Crusades and the Black Death, and I felt as though they had filmed the movie during that time – that’s how ancient it felt. Coupled with that was the tone and story of the film, the composition of each shot; it all felt out of time. Was I the only one who laughed at the man who agreed to play chess with Death, then tried to cheat and extend the game as long as he could? Even in a somber movie, there were moments of hilarity.

For people like Bergman, movies are important because of the stories they tell. I admire that, and I am glad he was able to tell so many. Some people talk about why it’s important to tell stories. Bergman didn’t talk about why: he showed us.

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the Panel Project

Sometimes I’ll be reading a comic and be struck by the composition of a single panel. When I was in high school, I’d search for single panels of Calvin and Hobbes to enlarge for the covers of my notebooks. I know what you’re thinking: He’s a nerd. And you would be right. But what I really wanted to express was that, while comics are meant to be read in sequence, there is the opportunity for the great single panel. For an analogy, I think of the great scene in an otherwise bad film; the one scene you might watch the whole movie for. Similarly, novelists will choose a passage from their book to read while on tour. I like being able to pick out a portion that can stand alone, and that represents something beautiful about the whole work.

On my website I attempted something I called the Panels Project. I picked single panels from a number of comic strips and strung them together. I wanted the result to look like a big, beautiful, nonsensical comic. Reading it sequentially would reveal no storyline, no traditional punchlines, but it would represent some of my best work, and maybe give an impression of the characters that you might not get reading the comic once per day.

I have to say, I don’t think the actual page came out the way I hoped. I’d like to give it another try, but I’m not sure exactly how I’ll do it. Ideally, there would be no background: you would only see panels side-by-side. You would scroll down, and there would just be row upon row of panels. It would be like a skyscraper made out of comics.

If anyone with web page building expertise has any suggestions, I’d love to talk about how to realize this project.
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Should I post this twice?

Here’s a question that used to bug the heck out of me when I was a kid. How does a cartoonist refrain from repeating a joke he has already made? I don’t mean variations on a joke. Lucy yanks away the football Charlie Brown is going to kick; Calvin goes sledding while philosophizing. In those cases the joke is different, but the frame is reused. No, I mean the exact same joke. Same wording, same setup, punchline. Everything. This becomes more pertinent as time goes by; when you’ve been drawing your comic strip for ten or twenty (or, like Charles Schultz, fifty) years, how do you keep track of the jokes you’ve already made? Do you keep a file? Do you know you’ve already made a joke the way you know to keep breathing all the time?

The question was answered for me not long ago when I read the introductions to The Complete Far Side and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Both Larsen and Watterson pointed out a joke they unconsciously drew twice. Amazing! No one noticed! And the fact that it was only one joke in fifteen years (the Far Side) and ten years (Calvin and Hobbes) made me feel better. I’d be worried if I started repeating myself more frequently than once a decade.
I have to assume that their editors missed the repeat as well. That makes me wonder: what if you started repeating jokes on purpose, just to mess with people? How long would it take before you got a reaction? I don’t think that’s the kind of “joke” people read the newspaper funnies for, but it’s an interesting thought.
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Bug-Eye, Triangle Jaw, Shoe Drop

Here’s another post about change.
One thing I love about drawing comics is how to alter a character’s expression from panel to panel. There is a lesson I learned from Calvin and Hobbes – never use the same expression twice. It’s more fun when “Carver is Surprised” really is surprising. If I’m going to draw the same face over and over again, why not just cut and paste in Photoshop? I hate the super consistency that a computer offers. Why even bother picking up the pen when I know what the result will be? Why even get out of bed in the morning? The cartoonist wants to have as much fun as the reader.
I like my comic to look like a real person draws it. I do whatever I can to draw well, but not “perfectly”. My comics are happily inconsistent. I try to make them look intentionally so. I don’t mess with proportions – Carver’s wings remain the same size in relation to his body, Melissa’s tail doesn’t mysteriously grow at random. But if Carver or Melissa look slightly different when they are supposed to be sitting still, I keep it that way.
I don’t use measurements to keep characters the exact same height from panel to panel. I dislike rulers anyway; using them for more than panel borders and dialogue spacing is tiresome. I know generally that Carver is about waist-high on Ernesto. Pam is slightly shorter than Dee. Ernesto might be my tallest character, but only because he wears big shoes. I think if Dee ever wore high heels, she’d be taller. I can’t imagine why Dee would ever wear high heels, but there you go.
Most of the time, comic characters begin to look static when multiple people work on them. This is especially true in animation, when you have dozens or hundreds of animators drawing the same character over and over. Donald Duck can’t look different in every cel: it wouldn’t animate. But when you have this happening to a comic strip character, it takes all the air out of it. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it is just that the comic strips I love offer so much variability, it becomes part of the pleasure of reading the comic.
Comics aren’t supposed to look professional. They’re supposed to look funny. And you know what? Professional isn’t funny.
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Funny Tunes

I haven’t posted in a while, and, to tell you the truth, it’s hard to post frequently when every post has to be a long one. To remedy the situation, I’ll make this short. Short like the lifespan of a fruit fly.

One thing that I always wish comics could do better is music. It’s incredibly hard to show characters listening to music, or to imply music is playing in a scene. I hate drawing that curvy line of music notes – it just seems so worn out. Also, if you are thinking of a particular song, you have to assume your reader knows that song too, or the whole comic doesn’t make sense.
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It would be fun to do a series of animated shorts, just to use all the music-related jokes, or jokes that rely on music being played in the background, I can think of.

I love the classic Looney Tunes that turn on a single piece of music – The Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc. Classic, and so funny!


The Cartoon Research Library

What better thing to to in Ohio than look at some comics? I was in Ohio last week and was able to make a side-trip to the Cartoon Research Library, part of Ohio State University in Columbus. It was, to say the least, a long-awaited-for moment.

The library itself is tucked away inside a larger building for arts programs. It is a smallish room with long tables, good for research and the handling of large pieces of paper. There was an exhibit on display called “To Be Continued…” about serial stories in comic strips. Some Pogo comics were out, as well as Doonesbury and For Better or For Worse. I looked at the display, but only after the reason I had come so far.

The woman at the desk asked my name and pulled the comics I had requested the day before. All the originals are stored so as to slow their deterioration – you can’t just browse the stacks and pull out your favorites. She set them down on the table and I began to look at them, one at a time.

I had requested a couple of original Krazy Kat comics, by George Herriman. Krazy Kat is a surreal comic set in Coconino County in Arizona. I love the bizarre and ever-changing landscapes, as well as the loopy way Herriman drew his main characters – Krazy (the love-struck cat), Ignatz (the object of Krazy’s affection, who delights in throwing bricks at Krazy’s head), and Offica Pup (who often throws Ignatz in the county jail for his brick-throwing offenses). These strips were huge. Lots of room for story AND art. I don’t know if I fill that big space every week. There were nine panels in all (3 rows and 3 columns); however, Herriman only drew a box around the center panel. It gave the comic a sketchbook kind of feel: more free flowing. I found out that: there were very few pencil lines for guides. Unless the pencil lines have faded with age (they were dated 1919!), there weren’t many pencil marks. It all looked very loosely drawn. That doesn’t mean he drew quickly, just that his style was spontaneous. I liked the way it looked. It was silly in the drawing, fun to look at.

Next, I looked at a few examples of Walt Kelly’s Pogo. The Pogo strips were dated 1948. They were in the format we are familiar with today – four panels for dailies, and a larger Sunday. Kelly used non-photo blue pencil for his outlines. The blue pencil is great – I use it myself – because you can draw all over the page and you never have to erase a line. It won’t show up on a photocopy. Kelly added a lot of detail before beginning with ink. I could see where he had used a ruler for the panels and for dialogue, then drawn in the characters and scenery. Then, when he went in for the final ink drawing, he used the blue pencil as a sort of sketch. He would change things as he drew with brush. I could see where dialogue had been changed, and characters’ looked different in ink than they had in pencil. He was not locked in by the pencil drawings; it was more of a rough draft.

A detail I liked on one of the Sundays was a note Kelly made at the top of the page: “The cow must be purple.” I wondered why he felt like he had to make that specific note to the printer about the cow, but not anything else in the strip. Reading the comic it became clear: they reference the cow as purple. How strange for a reader to see a blue cow and then have the characters talk about how purple it is.

Finally, I saw two weeks’ worth of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson has all his originals on long-term loan; the Library hopes it will become a permanent gift sometime in the future. Looking at his work, as he drew it, was probably the most important schooling I’ve had in my life. They are really beautiful.Newspapers and the books lose a lot of subtle detail – the brush lines are so delicate, and obviously drawn very carefully. I found myself staring at hands a lot as I looked through the drawings. I was surprised that he had apparently lifted his brush quite a bit while drawing – there weren’t many continuous lines. I’m guessing that he didn’t want the brush to run out of ink; there were few lines drawn with a dry brush.

Watterson used a light pencil line to draw the panels and outlines for the characters. Not much to erase afterwards. Usually I saw the ghost of a circle where Calvin’s head was, or two circles and a squashed oval for Hobbes. The librarian commented that they were “clean”, and she was right. There wasn’t even much white-out used. Usually, when Watterson did use white-out, it was for an effect, like Hobbes’ whiskers across his face, or an alien’s saliva, or rain falling in front of Calvin. All of this shows how much in control of the drawing Watterson was. He already knew what he wanted the comic to look like, before he even started drawing.

I looked at one week of Calvin and Hobbes done in the mid-80’s, the beginning of the run, and one week in the mid-90’s, the end. The differences in drawing were there, but one new thing I noticed was the different paper Watterson used. In the 80’s, he used Bristol board taken from a pad. Later on, he was using Bristol board sold loose (series 500, for those keeping score), a much higher quality paper. I read once that Watterson said he realized that it really did make a difference which paper you use. It was pretty cool to see evidence of that switch.

One of the Sunday strips I saw was the one in which Calvin imagines himself as an Earth-destroying god. It was one Watterson mentioned as a reason he wanted to switch to a larger Sunday format. The amount of ink on the page was quite a lot for a comic strip: mostly, they use white space. But Watterson didn’t just fill the panels with black – he used cross-hatching to create a more atmospheric effect (I felt like it was a cross between looking into deep space and the illustrations of illuminated manuscripts). The reprinted version in the books just doesn’t show this very well. I can understand why he was disappointed with the result after working so hard to achieve a certain look.

I could go on about my impressions, but this post has become something of a monster already, so I’ll close. I can’t state how important it was for me to see these pieces of art – done by three of the greatest cartoonists, ever. Ultimately, though, instead of being humbled by their superiority, I was lifted. In the end, it was just ink lines on a page. I can do that. Heck, ANYONE can do that. Comics are not for the artistic elite in their high castles. Comics are for everyone. And it was great to see that magic can be achieved with the simplest tools: paper, pencil, and ink.