Learning new moves from experienced strippers

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between comic strips and comic books lately.

Even though I’ve essentially been writing & drawing a comic strip for years now, I’ve always thought of myself as a comic book creator. And, while I haven’t yet collected the “Watusi” strips like I’ve planned, my end goal with these stories has always been for book-length (or at least issue-length) collections. Which only makes sense, given how much more my storytelling sensibilities and influences have always come from the pacing of comic books than from gag-a-day comic strips. Still, I’ve found myself paying a lot more attention to comic strips than to books lately. Partly this is because there aren’t that many ongoing monthlies that appeal to me right now, partly because my own collection is largely inaccessible in my current studio space, and partly because the (how to say this kindly?) “vintage” graphic novel collection at the Memphis Public Library includes a lot more “Alley Oop” than Saga. And they only have one “Alley Oop” book…

But I’m enjoying what I’m discovering– not just in classic adventure strips that lean naturally toward my comic interests– but also in gag strips, both those being published today and what I’m rediscovering in older strips.

Among current strip creators I enjoy, I particularly admire their ability to compress their work into such limited space while retaining detail and charm in their drawings … which is something I can relate to, given my chosen page size of 8 1/2 x 5 1/2″. Even though their styles are radically different, these cartoonists are especially adept at that: Dean Young & John Marshall’s “Blondie” gives an impressive sense of clearly-drawn environment in just three panels. I’ve already written about my admiration for Patrick McDonnell‘s “Mutts”, and I love how he gives his characters so much personality in so few lines. Mike Peters’ “Mother Goose & Grimm” and Tom Thaves’ “Frank & Ernest” have wonderfully chunky lines that suit their (often) single-panel gags, and also reminds me of what Tom Cherry does so successfully in “Those Funky Idiots”. (I don’t think I could easily make that work with my wordier writing style, though) And while I find Tom Batiuk & Chuck Ayers’ “Crankshaft” too depressing to enjoy reading, I do appreciate its more comic book-like camera angles, which gives it a visual variety that really sets it apart from most of its gag-a-day compatriots. And while I’ve only enjoyed it online, Bob Scott’s “Molly and the Bear” does a great job of packing lovely drawings into a small space … and without relying on short character designs to aid in that regard, either.

Of course, Charles Schulz was known for taking advantage of short characters and simplified drawings to make the most of his limited space on the newspaper page (space which has shrunk even more since he began “Peanuts” so long ago). One of the old strip collections I found at the library was a nearly 40-year old copy of Peanuts Jubilee: my life and art with Charlie Brown and others (Ballantine Books, 1975), and in the third section of that book Schulz really dug into his aesthetic choices both as a writer and an artist, as well as his practical approach to making art on a daily basis. Notably, “I believe that as little pencil work as possible should go into the drawing, the cartoonist should draw as much as is practical with the pen itself.” Sergio Aragones may be able to pull that off, but it’s not something I’m comfortable doing. However, my style is simple enough that it doesn’t take much for a pen line to nail the exact expression I’m aiming for … or to blow it, so I definitely understand what Schulz is getting at. And even though he relied on stock poses and settings for his strips, his drawings managed to retain a freshness that is pleasant to look at. “Cartooning is, after all, drawing funny pictures, something a cartoonist should never forget.”

After reading that book, I dug out my copy of Bill Watterson‘s Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995 (Andrews McMeel Pub., 2001). In this catalog from the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library’s exhibit of the same name, Watterson looked back on his famous creation and talked about his creative choices, his struggle to gain more flexibility in the layout of his Sunday strip, and the strengths and weaknesses of the Sunday and daily formats. It’s a great book, and I found what he had to say especially useful as I’ve transitioned “Watusi” from a 4-panel to a full-page strip over the last few months. While my feeling of liberation is not as great as what Watterson achieved in 1992 with his half-page “Calvin and Hobbes”,  I’ve enjoyed experiment with page layouts again in a way that I haven’t in some time.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve been so drawn to comic strips lately. Most of the comics that I have enjoyed — and have influenced me– the most are by writer/artists (Allred’s Madman, Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Chadwick’s Concrete, Chaykin’s American Flagg!, Eisner’s Spirit, Larsen’s Savage Dragon, and Simonson’s Thor come to mind). Even though most comic strips aren’t the pure one-man operation of a Schulz or a Watterson, they come closer to that ideal that most comic books being published today, so finding a fresh source of inspiration in the form is a happy occurrence for me at this point in my creative life. Though I’ve never aspired– or think I have the right mindset– to be a comic strip artist (especially in the gag-a-day world that constitutes the daily strip today), I feel I’m on the right track by looking to them– as opposed to most comic books— for inspiration and techniques, and am looking forward to bringing some of the freshness of a well-cartooned strip into my own pages.

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2 Comments to “Learning new moves from experienced strippers”

  1. I’ve been admiring many of Ditko’s panels, how he designs them and packs so much easily accessed information in them. When he doesn’t just skip the backgrounds..

    And I am amazed how, in spite of the art, how well Bobby London captured Segar’s Popeye. The art is clumsy and crappy and works wonderfully.

    • I’ve also come to an appreciation of Ditko’s work (even his much-maligned later work on Rom) for much the same reason you mention. He certainly doesn’t waste time on distracting details that get in the way of clarity– which is in some sense the essence of cartooning!

      While I didn’t set out to do so, I ended up using that Ditko-esque trait in a recent story for Bob Corby’s Oh, Comics! “Machines” issue. Look for it at this spring’s S.P.A.C.E., April 9-10, 2016.

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