Monday, June 29, 2009

Cartoons and Culture

Begorrah! Shure an' 'Tis an Oirish Stereotype

When I was writing my 1930s aviation fantasy Crash Ryan I wanted to convey the idea that the pilots in the rival air forces had come from all over the world. A quick and easy way to do that was to have them speak in dialects reflecting their origins: the Swede, the Italian, the Cockney Englishman. It was a calculated use of comparatively harmless stereotypes to keep everyone from sounding the same. The attempt had mixed success. One critic complained it reminded him of reading old Blackhawk comics. This was a fair criticism.To linguists dialect refers to a regional variant of a language with a unique vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation. In entertainment dialect describes an attempt to render the way non-natives speak the local language. Dialect is both caricature and stereotype. Like all stereotypes dialect starts with a grain of truth, then exaggerates and embellishes to produce a sort of “super-accent” which the audience accepts as the way foreigners speak. Dialect can be used benignly to add variety to dialogue, as I did in Crash. More commonly it's used to poke fun at the speaker. The line between fun-poking and ridicule is thin, and dialect too often is a vehicle for hostility and prejudice.

Dialect writers use three tools: catchphrases, orthography, and grammar. Catchphrases in the speaker's native language are sprinkled through dialogue for “authenticity.” Exclamations are always popular catchphrases: Frenchmen exclaim “Sacre bleu!” Italians say “Mamma Mia!” and Germans cry “Himmel!” Orthography re-spells words to suggest the way foreign speakers pronounce them. An Irishman says “nivver” for “”never” and an Italian says “beeg” for “big.” Grammar rearranges sentences to mimic speech patterns. A German says, “The radio to howl began,” an Irishman, “It's down to the corner I'm going.”

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of American dialect humor. European immigration was at its height. Cities teemed with new arrivals from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Russia and eastern Europe. A babble of new accents made its way into popular entertainment. Comic Italians, Irishmen, and European Jews paraded across the vaudeville stage to be laughed at by native born and immigrant alike. Magazine cartoons presented almost as many ethnic situations as they did jokes about love and courtship. How-to books urged would-be public speakers always to have a few dialect routines ready.

To a certain extent ethnic humor acknowledged and celebrated the new diversity. More frequently it reinforced the audience's sense of superiority. The readers of mass magazines were mostly established middle-class Anglo-Americans living in cities and larger towns. Presenting new foreigners as less-educated, less-intelligent objects of amusement soothed their fears that an immigrant horde would replace them at the top of the food chain.

In America the main targets of dialect were the long-entrenched African Americans and the newly-arrived Irish. An astonishing amount of work went into short stories, comic essays, and cartoons featuring stereotypes of these characters. The fantastical dialect that resulted was often nearly unreadable. Here's an example of Irish dialect at its ripest:

Given how integral a part of American society Irish Americans are today, it's surprising to see how intensely they were despised in earlier times. In an upscale 1910 magazine an article offered “scientific proof” that the Irish were a separate race, inferior even to the “Negroes and the Mediterraneans,” so backward they could never be civilized. The gentlest option the author offered was expulsion. Obviously he thought extinction wouldn't be a bad idea.

The stereotyped Irishman in turn-of-the-century humor was more than a dialect; he was a complete package. He had a brutish face and often wore chin whiskers. He dressed either in laborer's clothes or the traditional dress we now identify with leprechauns. He worked at manual labor, usually laying bricks or digging ditches. Oddly, though characterized as lazy, he was almost always shown working. He was unschooled in city ways and was an easy mark for con men. He boasted lightweight intelligence and a heavyweight wife (who almost invariably was employed as a domestic), smoked a clay pipe and was accompanied by a bottle of liquor. And he spoke in that arcane dialect.

After hearing native Irishmen speak, I wonder how some of these conventions got started. The “h” in words like “afther” is particularly curious. I think it's meant to signify the little puff of air following a hard “t.” Irish speakers soften the T and hold it slightly, followed by a quick exhale: “aft-(h)er.” But an American tends to read the word as “af-ther” with a “th” like that in “bath.” However if that explains the “h,” I'm still puzzled over the use of “Oi” for the first person singular. I hear a combination of “ah-ee” in Irish speech, not “oh-ee.” Nevertheless “Oi” was universal in Irish dialect.

It's interesting that the Irish stereotype was nearly extinct by the time comic books came around in the 1930s. By then the remaining Irish stereotypes were the uncultured but honest Irish cop on the beat and the handsome hot-headed adventurer, like Terry and the Pirates' Pat Ryan. Both stereotypes are positive, if somewhat condescending. The reason probably lies in the Irish American's quick rise into mainstream society. Within a couple of generations many Irish Americans had gained wealth and political power, while countless more moved into the burgeoning middle class. They were no longer fair game. Meanwhile African Americans were still firmly confined to their place at the bottom of the ladder. Their stereotypes thrived for another twenty years.

I'm no expert in the subject, but my reading suggests that dialect was a peculiarly American obsession. In foreign comics I haven't found anywhere near the same attention paid to singling out linguistic differences. I'd love to hear from fans in other countries how dialect figures in popular entertainment in their own languages.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Carlos Gimenez, the Early Years

The Force of Delta
I don't hear much about Carlos Gimenez in the U.S. these days. Gimenez, now pushing 70, is still quite active in Spain. He's president of a society for Spanish comic artists and admired as a grand master of Spanish historietas. Much of his output during the last thirty years has been autobiographical or historical in nature, expressing his passion for Spanish history as well as his rather pessimistic view of civilization. Paracuellos, a long series of episodes based on Gimenez' youth spent in a Falangist orphanage, is at once a warmly human and chillingly dismal document of a shattered society. It alone would have guaranteed Gimenez' reputation as a master graphic storyteller.

And yet...

There was another, lighter, Carlos Gimenez who turned many American fans' heads in the early 1970s. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere, illustrating an adventure-spy mashup called "Delta 99." Though it originally appeared as a series of Spanish digest sized comics, we Californians encountered Delta through Mexican reprints.

Gimenez, along with Esteban Maroto (reprints of whose s-f work popped up about the same time), were the first Spanish comic artists we'd seen. Many of us were blown away by their romantic, designy approach and their strong draughtsmanship. In years to come, Jim Warren would fill his black-and-white horror mags with Spanish cartoonists. Our enthusiasm waned as the Spaniards' weaknesses became apparent, notably a tendency to prefer flashy drawing to clear storytelling, and a strong house style (especially in the case of women's faces) that gave everything a generic look.

I loved Gimenez' work from this period. On one hand he filled Delta 99 with Carnaby Street flash and Art Nouveau ornament; on the other he gave modern expression to the grand tradition of newspaper adventure strips. The influence of his primary non-Spanish influence, Frank Robbins, is strong in the Delta strips. Gimenez was a master of spotting blacks and high-contrast composition. Here are two typical pages from a Delta story set in a mythical San Francisco, where 1950s motorcycle hoods make a racial attack on a lovely "mulatto." They're reproduced from decades-old xerocopies from an original Spanish comic (the translation is mine).Though Delta 99 seemed to me the work of a newcomer, Gimenez had actually been working in comics for several years. Starting as an assistant for established artist Lopez Blanco, whom Gimenez named as his "mentor," he assisted on a number of strips for foreign markets. His first solo work appeared in Spain during the early 60s. I know some of their names ("Buck John" is often mentioned) but I've never seen any of this early work. The young artist joined Selecciones Ilustradas, the legendary Barcelonan agency (a shop, really) which packaged comics and illustrations for foreign and domestic publishers. It was there Gimenez realized his first "mature" strip, a western called "Gringo." Here's a page lifted from Gimenez' website:

We can see the components of the Delta 99 style are almost in place, particularly the balance of black and white and the vibrant brushwork. That brush was a key ingredient of Gimenez' style during this period. When he left Delta 99 and began the youth-oriented science fiction strip Dani Futuro, Gimenez' brush reached levels of expressiveness it never reached again. The strokes danced and whirled. Below is a cover Gimenez drew for the Spanish comics prozine Bang to accompany articles on Gimenez and Dani. Look at the strokes on Dani's shirt: those are the work of someone madly in love with his his tools and with the art of drawing. There's no way someone could have inked that without a smile on his face; the vigor and enthusiasm in Gimenez' drawing is palpable.Dani Futuro is a story for another time. Gimenez' decorative tendencies moved to the fore while the cartooniness that evolved into his Paracuellos style began to show. When Gimenez changed style radically in 1977, moving into the Giraud orbit, he seems to have abandoned his brush for a pen. Fine as his later artwork may be, the youthful zest of Delta and Dani make those strips my favorite Gimenez work.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Stuff I've Done

Sketch Time
It's been a very long time since I posted here, something I promised myself I wouldn't do. I've been working on a very time-consuming outside spec project. The time it consumes is all the time I'm not at Trader Joe's shaking my head at the latest directive from upstairs.

So to post something at least I offer some sketches from the project in question. These were done in lead pencil on tracing paper; nothing elaborate at all...lack of photo reference shows in spots.

I don't like posting my own stuff. There's so much great stuff out there I feel rather stupid offering my work alongside the likes of Frank Godwin and Ray Bailey.

However if you're a glutton for punishment I offer a link to my DeviantArt site. I have let that gallery sit for a long time, too. However now that I'm producing some more non-TJ work I intend to update my collection there.

My DeviantArt page is here.

As the project develops over the next couple of weeks I'll have more finished stuff to show.
As long as we're at it, here's a piece from work I kinda liked. It's a multi-level sign I did pushing cheap pasta. The stereotype chef was drawn, as usual, using pastels on 32x40 inch black foam board. The "mamma mia" and the price were spray-painted onto separate pieces of foam board and outlined with paint pens. The smaller lettering on the main sign was also done with paint pen.

The sign is no more, but when we tore it down I saved the chef...I'll get a good photo of him some day. I really like doing this kind of stuff.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Technique Talk

Hail the Hallowed Halo
Many years ago Jim Vadeboncoeur and I interviewed the late John Buscema about his early career. At one point I asked him why he and other comic artists of the 50s and 60s put "halos" around characters rather than letting a black background touch them. Here's an example of what I mean, from a Golden Age Ruben Moreira story:

The halo preserves the outline of the co-pilot's face. In the printed comic the effect might be subdued by running a dark color over the halo so it becomes part of the background:

Too often comic book colorists chose a bright color, giving the character a radioactive glow:

When you look at it closely, though, the halo wasn't necessary. Had Moreira left the guy's nose open instead of in shadow, the background could have met the face and the face would have read just fine.

But comics artists often used halos when outlines didn't need preserving. Here's a particularly egregious example from Milton Caniff, who of all people should have known better. [Sidebar: I'm not convinced this is 100% Caniff; I suspect ghost work.] With the exception of Terry's left arm and Dude's shirt front, none of these edges needed saving. The halos here were apparently artistic, not practical, choices.

As for Buscema, he shrugged halos off as a stylistic trick comic artists adopted from illustrators they'd admired in school. This intrigued me, so I pulled out some tearsheets and went looking for halos.

I found quite a bit of evidence to support Buscema's theory. Many illustrators lightened the areas around characters, especially around their heads. Here are a couple of 1944 advertising examples.

The group of women is from an ad for Eureka vacuum cleaners. Note how each head is haloed. I understand using a halo to highlight the main figure. But halos don't make sense on the secondary figures, like the elderly woman and the one with the cap to the main figure's right. In the full-size reproduction we see that the grey background tones are hatched in with a brush, just like Caniff's black background.

In another ad, one pushing Wilsonite sunglasses, W. Calvert also uses a halo to emphasize the main character. I confess I reproduce this ad not only to show its artwork, but also to share the wonderfully-awful wartime pun in the headline. Anyway, consider the halo around the aviator. It certainly draws attention to the his face, the most important part of the picture. Unfortunately it also eats away much of a background figure. This partial figure looks really weird. Calvert would have been wiser to move him further back and to the right--or to leave him out altogether. I speculate that this figure was indeed fully painted at first. Calvert might have sponged out the halo later to prevent the background interfering with the aviator's head.

Which led me to wonder if some comic book halos weren't style at all, but the result of insufficient planning. Consider how a cartoonist can handle a large foreground black area. The classic choice is to position it against a white (or grey) part of the background. But what if the background is also black? There are two options. We can deliberately lose the foreground black into the background. George Tuska did that with Buck's hair in this Buck Rogers daily:

As long as you plan the black areas properly, the viewer will understand the drawing. As we'll see later, you can lose quite a bit of foreground black without your drawing becoming unreadable.

The second way to avoid losing a foreground black is to provide a rimlight to illuminate the endangered spot. That's what Austin Briggs did on Ming's helmet in this Flash Gordon panel:

A rimlight keeps the light "inside" the drawing. The result is a natural light effect instead of an artistic gimmick like a halo. Like the last one, this technique requires forethought. If you don't plan ahead you wind up with an abomination like this William Overgard Steve Roper panel:

This could only have happened if Overgard had drawn and inked the foreground completely, then decided he wanted a solid black background. Since the story takes place in a darkened room, you'd think he'd have inked the background first so he'd know which foreground blacks he could afford to lose. Or he could have spotted blacks in the pencils, so he'd know where he was going when he began to ink.

Working from dark to light is a great way to control blacks, but it's difficult to master and not many artists use the approach. Milton Caniff wrote that Noel Sickles worked dark to light, massing in all his shadows with a brush before indicating outlines with a pen. This work flow made panels like this possible:

Had Sickles outlined in pen first, we'd see more linework in the light areas. Instead he used the barest of lines to hold the foreground figure's face. The shadow carries the rest. The speaker's face is made entirely of shadow. The one exception is the line of his chin. Leaving that line out would have let the face run into the drapery.

Caniff said he tried to emulate Sickles' approach but gave up in frustration and went back to outlining everything in pen. Having tried both ways, I can appreciate how he felt. However if you can master working dark to light, you open up a whole a new world: the world of "invisible lines." Rather than describe what I mean with words, I offer a panel by one of the world's masters of black and white, Arturo del Castillo. Devour this:Every time I look at this panel I drool. The massing of blacks borders on audacious. With an alternating pattern of darks and lights del Castillo gives the figures a full three dimensions. Hardly anything has an outline. The exterior contours of hats, heads and bodies are defined entirely by the shadows enclosing them. Where there's no shadow there's no line. The viewer's brain provides the line. The middle man's back is as solid as can be, yet most of its light side doesn't exist! And how about the face of the guy on the right? It consists of nothing but perfectly placed chunks of shadow. Wow!

Here's another del Castillo panel, in which he pushes the imaginary outline to its maximum. Take a look at the white hat at the left.That hat's crown has height, depth, and roundness. Yet it's not there! The crown is all in our mind...the only things on the page are two big chunks of black. No halos here. None needed!

For my money this is the sort of thing to aspire to. Think ahead. Bravely allow those black backgrounds to touch your figures. (Of course, as del Castillo demonstrates, being a genius helps.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Early Work by Noted Cartoonists

I Knew Them When...
Many well-known names appeared in the pages of Judge magazine during the teens. Several got their start there. I've collected some then-and-now scans of notables from a Caricature collection that seems, by internal clues, to date from circa 1913.

John Held, Jr. would have been in his early twenties when he drew Judge cartoons in a German-block print style under the signature "Johann Hult." I speculated that, Held being the son of a Swiss immigrant, his original name may have been Hult, but I've found no evidence of this. Besides, "Hult" puts umlauts over both the "u" in Hult, where it might have a place, and the "o" in Johann, where an umlaut definitely does not belong. I presume this was a gag signature.

Held is of course famous for his quintessential 1920s flapper. Apparently he'd been cartooning since 1910. That year, according to, he was hired by the "Collier's Agency." At any rate thanks to his flappers he enjoyed several years of world renown.

Despite his "flapper style," Held remained interested in block prints, an art which he'd learned from his father. Coincident with the flappers he did numerous linoleum cuts in a "Gay 90's" style poking fun at both Victorian and modern mores. As the flapper craze faded Held produced many cuts for the new New Yorker magazine, which had been started by a friend ofhis.

Held later transferred his flappers to a newspaper strip. Merely Margie debuted in 1930 and ran for five years. Held continued illustrating for various publications until his death in 1958.

Percy Crosby would have turned 21 in 1913. He had already been cartooning for the New York World for two years. These two Judge drawings are rendered in a much more elaborate fashion than Crosby used in his legendary Skippy strips. The first is an illustrated pun, an old Judge standby. It's hard to recognize Crosby's later style, especially in the generic Gibsonesque woman, who appeared in everything from Little Nemo to Bringing up Father.

The second cartoon is an amusing comment on the era's fad for a piano in every home. I've seen a number of Judge and Life cartoons on this subject. Apparently there were plenty of neighbors who didn't appreciate the craze. "Try this on your piano" was a familiar sales slogan. Publishers printed the first few bars of their new songs on the back covers of sheet music folios. They hoped that once having played the introduction, the pianist would want to buy the entire song. Sort of like those MP3 download sites do today.

Percy Crosby's Skippy became a smash hit, spinning off into movies and making Crosby a household name. His career took a tragic turn, though, when a big food company appropriated Skippy for its peanut butter. In a nutshell Crosby was screwed big time. The entire sordid story is recounted in the Skippy website maintained by Crosby's descendants. Crosby spent his last sixteen years in an mental institution.

Many Skippy strips are around; instead here's Crosby's less-known topper strip. This example is from 6 October 1935.

Our next entry is from a surprising guest star: the (fortunately) inimitable Harry G. Peter, of uncertain age when he did this color half page. Hints of the H.G. to come are visible in this allegorical drawing, including the familiar Wonder Woman theme of powerful women enslaving men (okay, I know that was mostly Moulton's idea).Just to remind you where he ended up, here's Peter's cover for Wonder Woman number 10. By this time Peter had simplified his drawing style considerably (and apparently forgotten much of what he'd learned about drawing).

Johnny Gruelle is permanently linked to Raggedy Ann, his most famous creation. This fame has clouded the fact that he was a versatile illustrator who could work in many styles. I suggest image-Googling him to see for yourself. In 1913 Gruelle would have been 34. The next year he'd be replacing Little Nemo in Slumberland with his remarkable Mr. Twee Deedle. In our first example we find him doing an unusually-straight wash drawing for a typically-unamusing Judge cartoon (someday someone will have to write a monograph on descriptive character names in cartoons and comics).

Fortunately, Gruelle's more typical Judge work involved immense panels offering an aerial view of some big event. They were crammed with amusing detail and plain hard work. The one I've chosen is animal-themed, but most of the ones I have concern human happenings like escaped dogs or exploding fireworks. I want to post more of these; they're technically brilliant and very funny.
Art Young was no newcomer when he drew these panels for Judge. He was almost out of his forties, having been born the year after the Civil War ended! He had studied in Chicago, New York, and Paris. His cartooning career started in the 1880s. Around the turn of the century he became interested in socialism and left-wing causes, an interest which culminated in his stint with The Masses (1911-1918), an influential (and notorious) leftist magazine. He would have been working at that magazine at the same time he drew this atypically slick panel.

My second example is drawn more in the Masses style, which seems to be Young's "mature" style. It shows that despite the cartoonist's championing of the downtrodden he wasn't above having a laugh at the expense of a comical immigrant.

Young's savage cartoons attacked class warfare, racial and sexual discrimination, capitalism, and militarism. They also got him into a heap of trouble, for he and other Masses contributors were indicted for "conspiracy to obstruct the draft" under the Espionage Act, that era's version of the PATRIOT Act. However two trials resulted in hung juries and the charges were dropped.

Following is an illustration from The Masses in which Young pictures the magazine's cartoon staff. Note future "Ash Can" Schoolers John Sloan and George Bellows.

On a personal level, though I've always respected the content of Young's cartoons, I never thought much of his artwork. The cartoons with which I was familiar seemed crude and amateurish. Gathering material for this post I realize that assumption was based on insufficient evidence. His illustration work demonstrates that all his education wasn't for naught. While he wasn't the greatest artist of his day, he was quite competent. He may have developed the sledge-hammer style purposefully, perhaps because he felt it suited his subjects. Or perhaps he was fighting deadlines. Or maybe he just got tired! Who knows? Whatever the reason, Art Young remains an important figure in American cartooning.