Blog comic

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.

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.