Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Plus That Script!
In an interview given many years ago, Alex Toth advocated that comic artists should "plus" a script when converting it into drawings. The term comes from animation, and refers to enriching a story by inserting visual bits--background details, poses, actions--that don't appear in the script.

It's similar to what happens in movies. If a scene features two actors talking, the actors seldom just stand there and yak at each other. They'll perform some sort of business that tells something about their character while adding movement to a static scene. For some reason, though comic artists frequently enliven scenes with interesting camera angles, they often don't go much further.

Recently I re-read two stories that showed what a master Toth was at plussing a scene. One was from the 1970s, when he was drawing romance stories for Charlton; the other is a Dell movie adaptation from the late 50s. Before looking at the Toth panel, let's look at a typical dialogue exchange from another story in the same issue. The penciller is Charles Nicholas.
This setup tells the basic story well enough, but the eye-level camera and static poses lend the scene a generic look. The impression isn't helped by the casual background. This room has no personality; it could be any room anywhere. Now let's look at how Toth illustrated a dialogue exchange that could easily have been presented in the same way:Not much happens in this panel. The narrator (a movie star) drives away while her friend and the guy they both love discuss her departure. But the panel is exciting because everything Toth draws gives the scene a unique personality. Instead of a generic house Toth has created a "Bel Air mansion" appropriate to a temperamental movie star. He stages the scene in deep perspective. Matt strikes a dynamic pose we understand without needing to see his face. The star is driving off not in some generic car but an expensive Porsche. Its cockpit is crammed with luggage. All the smaller background details--the shadow of palm trees, the cobblestone street, the tile roof--shout "Southern California Richville." This scene has individuality, and the story is better for it.

Creating well-thought-out backgrounds is a great way to plus a script. Consider this panel from the Dell adaptation of Clint and Mac, a youth-targeted mystery-adventure set in London. It's easy to picture the script for what might have been a throwaway panel. Smith, the guy in the trench coat, returns to his apartment expecting to meet his accomplice Toby. Smith calls out but Toby isn't there. Here's how Toth interpreted the scene:
This panel is an entire book about Smith. As written the character is a typical bad guy without much depth. But when composing this scene Toth asked himself, "Who is Smith? How would he live?" So we see a cheap, impossibly cramped room with wet laundry hung over an old-fashioned stove to dry. A couple of magazines are thrown onto the rumpled bed. He's not a total slob, though: while his clothes are tossed over a chair, his dishes are done. Smith (like Toth) is apparently a car fancier: other than the calendar his only decoration is a print of an old automobile. The blind is pulled halfway down; Smith dislikes either the sunlight or prying neighbors. Smith has become a real person. This is what plussing a script is all about.

Still one might ask, "Is there a point to this?" It's a fair question. After all the Clint and Mac panel really was incidental to the story. Its basic idea could have been got across in a simpler way. Is Toth just showing off? Comics as a medium are admittedly less involving than movies. People tend to read them quickly without scrutinizing each panel. However I believe that, just as happens in movies, thoughtful plussing subliminally adds to a reader's experience of the story, allowing him or her to take away from it more than was originally there.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Technique Talk--4

The Need for Speed (continued)
In the last post we looked at speedy Frank Godwin fighting the Deadline Doom in some old Connie strips. We agreed that speed is king in the commercial art world.

In my day the undisputed kings of speed were the Filipino comic artists. Almost to a man they could produce quality finished work at dazzling speed. Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, Fred Carillo, Tony de Zuniga, E.R. Cruz...the list goes on and on.

When these guys stopped working for comic books they moved to the better-paying animation industry as designers and storyboard artists. That’s where I got to know--and admire--many of them. One artist I especially enjoyed talking to was Abel Laxamana. Out of all the Filipino artists I knew Abel was the only one inclined to intellectualize about comic art. In one of our discussions I asked him how Filipino cartoonists came to be so damn fast.
Above, Abel Laxamana
He explained that during the heyday of Filipino comics (the 50s and 60s) there were plenty of comics published, but the pay rate was abysmal. To make even a modest living an artist had to produce lots of pages. You either learned to be fast or you sank.

Interestingly, this situation shaped the entire culture of Filipino comics. Though the pay was low publishers demanded a high standard of artwork. Face it: when you have to live up to guys like Francisco Coching and Alfredo Alcala, you’d better be good.
Above: The Man, Francisco Coching
This was the origin of the Filipino studio system. An established artist, eager to make more money, contracted with publishers to deliver more work than he could possibly do himself. To keep his commitment he hired assistants, often newer artists who hadn’t yet cracked the big time. The veteran artist paid his assistants from the income and took a percentage for himself. The assistants got plenty of experience and dreamed of the day they’d be good enough to approach publishers personally, overcommit on their own contracts, hire their own assistants, and take their own percentage.
Above: Nestor Redondo
The publishers didn’t care whether artists used assistants, but they did insist that the art delivered to them look like the veteran artist’s work. Thus it was critical that assistants learned to imitate closely the master’s style. Out of this system arose the Filipino National Style.
Americans often criticized Filipino artists for “all looking alike.” Like all generalizations this was simplistic; Filipino artists had individual styles just like all cartoonists. But like all generalizations, this one had a grain of truth. The similarity between Filipino artists’ styles was greater than that of artists in any country except perhaps Japan.

At the root of this phenomenon was, of course, the studio system. If you’re assisting Nestor Redondo, you learn to draw like Nestor Redondo. Later when you become a lead artist yourself and establish your personal style, you’ll still show a strong Redondo influence. Inevitably you’ll pass some of that influence to your assistant, and so on.
Above: Fred Carillo
Once I asked Fred Carillo for his Secret of Speedy Drawing. To him the key was visualizing exactly what you would put on the page, then drawing it directly with a minimum of wasted movement. While visualizing would mean a second or two spent not drawing, the time taken to make the drawing time would be cut dramatically. Fred pointed out how I (and so many other artists) wasted time figuring out what to do on the paper, sketching, scribbling and redrawing. His approach was like alla prima painting: visualize the stroke, put it down, and leave it.

As I said last post, speed drawing reveals just how good you really are. The downside is that no matter how good you are, to stay ahead of the game you make compromises.
Above: E. R. Cruz
Instead of researchiing a car you draw a generic car, or re-use stock characters. Perhaps all your characters start looking alike. This was the Achilles’ heel of E.R. Cruz, a speed demon among speed demons. He had one young-man face and one young-woman face; if there were two young men in a story it was difficult to tell them apart. And finally, as Abel once suggested, when you wanted to slow down and really take time on a piece you might find you don’t remember how.

All the same, if you want to see top-grade comic art done at speeds that would make an American’s head spin, check out the oeuvre of Coching, Alcala, Redondo and their brethren. It’s amazing.

The art in this post was found at the website This guy's collection is incredible; you mustn't miss his site if you appreciate great comic art.

Technique Talk--3

The Need for Speed
While working on a Connie collection recently, I encountered an example of a capable artist pushed to the wall by deadlines. Frank Godwin was known as both a prolific and a reliable craftsman. He always seemed to be doing several things at once: magazine illustration, his own comic strips, ghost work on others’ strips, book illustrations, agency work. But in 1938 work seems to have gotten the best of him.

Godwin always drew Connie quickly. Even when at the top of his game he worked in a fast, calligraphic manner quite different from the lush style he used years later on Rusty Riley. But during the course of four short stories we see him working faster and faster until, it seems, he is overwhelmed.

At the beginning of the period, Godwin looks like this: fast, but taking time to work up his figures and putting thought into staging and atmosphere.Gradually his drawing speeds up. Figures are sketchier, often looking as if Godwin has drawn them directly with the pen. Backgrounds (admittedly seldom of much interest to Godwin during this period) become little masterpieces of indication. Check out the last panel.By the time he starts the third story line, the strain is beginning to show. Finished panels still appear occasionally, but backgrounds are often reduced to a couple of lines or vanish altogether. Godwin begins cheating with head shots and talking airplanes.By the fourth story Godwin is desperate. Almost every panel is a head-and-shoulders shot, and backgrounds--well, just take a look at this sequence, which opens at a Central American airport, then moves to the hero’s hotel or wherever he’s staying.Alas, the effort is in vain. The last week of the continuity is ghosted by another artist, and the following story is entirely ghost work.So what happened? Illness? Taking on too much work? Too much partying? Of course we’ll never know. But the story told by those ever more rapid drawings started me pondering the role of speed in comics.

Anyone who’s been in the business knows that speed is king in the art world. Speed trumps quality: a mediocre artist who makes every deadline is more valuable than a supremely talented artist who’s unreliable. Interconnected demands of clients, publishing schedules, busy printers, and overloaded distributors don’t leave much wiggle room. You want to survive as an artist, you have to be fast.

An interesting thing about working fast is that it strips you down to your basic abilities. No time for reworking or redrawing; you wham it down and leave it. Your good points stand out and your weaknesses jump up and down screaming. Looking at this Connie speed session one sees just how good a draughtsman Godwin was. Even at breakneck speed he still draws beautifully--he just draws less.

In my next post I’ll talk a bit more about speed, represented by the record holders of speedy comic book production: the cartoonists of the Philippines’ “golden age” of comics.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Marking time

Where You At?

It's been too long since I posted here. Life has been a bit too interesting...spent a couple days in the hospital after going to Emergency with what seemed to be the big Heart Attack. After countless tests and investigations it became clear my heart was fine--thank heaven! I seem to have experienced the notorious Acid Reflux (which American TV viewers know intimately thanks to endless commercials). Its symptoms can resemble the Big One but it's considerably less serious. So I'm taking my medicine like a good boy and paying closer attention to my diet. I can take a hint!

More soon.