Archive for August, 2007

The Set

I’m a big fan of backgrounds in comics. I think they get neglected, for the most part because there is so little space. But a few well-placed background elements make for a more expansive world. It’s amazing how far a well-placed shrub or cactus will go to setting a scene.

Garfield succeeds because of, not in spite of, it’s minimalist nature. You rarely see a background. You see the single line representing the counter, or table on which Garfield and his co-inhabitants live. If Jon needs to make or receive a phone call, there is a phone. If Garfield is sleeping, there is a box for his bed. It would be scary to picture a real house of solid white walls and waist-high counters, but this is the world of Garfield. It works because of Jim Davis’ writing style. If he wrote florid, descriptive dialogue, well maybe there could be more decoration in the drawing. But as it is, there’s really no need. The drawing does everything the writing sets out for it.

I like to include background elements into each panel, unless I’m doing a close-up or a very emotional scene. Since I don’t care about continuity, I like to change the elements around on purpose. I like to think that the characters are walking around and so you’d see different views of the surrounding desert each panel. Sometimes I’ll deliberately move around the same background elements. When I do that, I think of the characters as being on a theater stage and the stage hands keep shifting the sets for no reason. On a recent comic, I had two plants and two mountains. In each of the three panels I shifted them just a bit – not drastically, but enough so that they don’t look like I’m trying to make them look the same. Do I do this out of boredom? I know I hate drawing the same picture over and over. But I’m also not going for realism in my stories, so why go for realism in backgrounds?

Krazy Kat was the comic strip that did this best. When I saw the original drawings at the Cartoon Research Library, it made perfect sense why. Herriman was writing a fantastical strip, and drawing solid, unchanging backgrounds wouldn’t have jibed with the writing or the characters. It made sense, in the terms of the strip, that a house would morph into a plateau then into a tree. Nothing was stationary. It’s part of what makes Krazy Kat so fun to look at.

I’m going to talk about Calvin and Hobbes again, so read no further if you’ve heard enough from me about that comic.

While thinking about backgrounds, I remembered that Watterson said he used the landscape of the Southwest (Welcome to Falling Rock National Park territory, in case you’re wondering) as his inspiration for alien worlds. Spaceman Spiff crash lands into a canyon that resembles the Grand one in Arizona; Calvin and Hobbes go searching for aliens on another planet that resembles Aches National Park, in Utah. It was completely accepted that these strange worlds would look like the Southwest. I wonder now, had Watterson grown up in Flagstaff or Moab, if he would have done the same thing. Would Calvin be tramping through the canyons and dry riverbeds in his backyard and flying off to forest-covered worlds resembling Ohio in the summer? I don’t think it would have worked.

Even though I’m so used to the landscape of the Southwest, I never thought it strange that alien worlds resembled the one that surrounded me every day. Heck, even NASA uses the Arizona desert to test their Mars rovers before shooting them into the void. It’s natural, to us anyway, that the desert is not our natural habitat. It’s otherworldly; we live there now thanks to technology. Air-conditioning and water piped in from the Colorado River allow people to reside there, for now. But when resources become scarce, we may have to leave the desert. We can only be visitors there.

The desert is a good setting for the fantastic. So when I move a cactus here or a mountain there, don’t be alarmed. It’s all part of the story.

My Obsession with Certain Presidents

I’ve long had a penchant for writing about certain past presidents. Thanks to They Might Be Giants, as well as a certain high school Government skit that proved highly successful with my classmates, I will always have an affinity for James K. Polk. However, it is the duo of Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon, perhaps the most and least successful of the Republican presidents, that I find myself writing about the most.
lincoln_battlefieldNixon and Elvis

Nixon and Elvis

Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. He guided the country through its most destructive war. He was extraordinarily tall, he wore hats, and he had a fantastic beard. He was a good public speaker and debater. He came from Illinois, “Land of Lincoln” (coincidence? I think not.) I’ve seen his house in Springfield, the offices where he practiced law, the State Legislature where he got his start politically, and his final resting place. What do I like so much about Lincoln? He was a humble man. He dealt with depression, and many of the pictures of him betray a deep melancholy. He was, in short, the absolute opposite of certain “stay the course” presidents of more recent memory. I get the feeling that he would never have made it in today’s information-gorged society. Had his every utterance been recorded, had his every motive been questioned by others, I doubt he would have been able to keep the focus on what mattered to him most: serving the country that elected him. Lincoln was a flawed, interesting character.

Richard Nixon hated the Jews. Let’s be honest here. They have tapes of him saying as much. He was a paranoid man, somehow always the underdog in his own mind even after being elected twice to the highest position in government. Sure, he went to China. Sure, he signed the Clean Air Act of 1970. But a little war halfway around the world that was the undoing of his Democrat predecessor would also drag him through one of the most troubled presidencies in history. That and a criminal investigation. As for his personality, Nixon just gave off an air of being a bad man. You’d think he could have relaxed a little; it might have helped his public image. He seemed to be constantly fighting. I heard a good phrase recently: “I’m not kicking against anything, I’m just kicking in midair.” That, to me, seems to sum up Richard Nixon.

Both Lincoln and Nixon had their personal troubles, but it was how they dealt with them that makes them different. That, and their policies. Kind of strange that they share the same party, isn’t it?


Sometimes when I draw a batch of comics (I usually draw 20-30 new strips at a time, after writing for a few weeks) I forget things. One of the more embarrassing things is when I sign a strip twice. I always put my signature somewhere on each strip. For some reason, there are times when I forget whether I’ve signed one or not. The thing that amazes me is, there isn’t that much space to put my signature. So if I’ve already signed it, that means I’ve had to find two suitable places for it. Fortunately, I check my strips many times before sending them out; I can usually catch these mistakes before they become public. But if you happen to see my signature twice, that doesn’t mean I’m especially proud of my accomplishment. It just means I’m forgetful.

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