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.