Friday, July 29, 2011

Strange Moments in Comics

When Good Objects Turn Human

Last week I found this cartoon plea from a yogurt carton on a box at the grocery store where I work.

It set me thinking about the human's love for anthropomorphizing animals and objects. It also started me reflecting upon some of the weird things that have been anthropomorphized. Obviously, any creature with arms and/or legs can eventually be turned into a human-like character. Inanimate objects present a greater challenge. Over the years advertisers--ever the standard bearers of anthropomorphic objects--have met that challenge with mixed results.
Perhaps the strangest humanized object I've encountered in comics is an anthropomorphized milking machine.
Here are the cover and three pages from "Johnny Surge," a booklet from 1947. I wonder just who the advertiser thought would read this? The subject and the "we know we're kidding you" tone of the cover blurb suggest an adult audience, specifically the dairyman they hoped would buy the milker. But somehow I can't picture a self-respecting dairyman being caught dead reading a storybook about a cutesy milking machine.

Maybe they thought the the farmer's kids would read it and propagandize the Old Man. "Shame on you, Daddy, you're hurting our cows with evil milking machines!" This was not only a strange character, but a strange book.

All the same, milking machines weren't the oddest anthropomorphized object. Unquestionably the least likely--yet somehow endearing--humanized object was...who else?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Technique talk--6

Packing It All In

Each of us who's ever done a commercial art job has met the client who wants absolutely everything in the commissioned piece.

He usually starts small--"I want this guy standing at the edge of a cliff with the moon behind him." Suddenly he thinks of some must-have addition. "And wait, in the background there's this house, right? With a light on in a window on the top floor." After that it snowballs. "Then over here, a car is driving up, fast, and a thug is jumping out. He's waving his gun. And what if we have a woman running out of the house shouting at the thug..." And so on.

This cover from Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay has all the earmarks of that kind of job. Its layers of complexity are amazing. A scantily dressed woman in a nightgown shows some leg as she holds an oil lantern and looks from an upper-floor window at a guy with an Elvis hairdo digging an immense hole in the yard (if that's a grave, it's for a square giant). Reflected in a mirror next to her we see an old guy in a robe (Her husband? Her sugar daddy?) opening the door behind her. He's either surprised or angry. The woman is doing some emoting of her own. Note both her upset expression and the patented Charles Biro Shake Lines around her body. Lots of narrative detail, but I find the story it tells confusing rather than intriguing. I'd bet most of the 5,000,000 readers looked at it and said, "Huh?"

The artist sure earned his twenty-five bucks drawing this cover.* He didn't shrink from his task. He strove manfully to fit everything in and still get a decent composition. He came close, but there remains an annoying hole at the lower right that even Charles Biro's enormous signature doesn't fill. The viewer can't help noticing all the loving interior detail: specific rather than generic furniture, doilies on the chair arms, decorative frills on the vase and the mirror frame, titles indicated on all the books, and even a ceramic doggie on the top shelf. I can't figure the cover out but I rather admire it.
*Charles Biro signed this cover, of course, but I've read in several places that he seldom if ever drew any of the CDNP covers bearing his signature.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Stuff I've Done--6

Past Jammin'

In the deep recesses of the Darkest Garage I came across this bit of nostalgia.

During my early years in Los Angeles I lived in a rundown apartment building called The Golden Palm. Those were among the best years of my life. The building was packed with Art Center students, novice illustrators, up-and-coming photographers, and comic artists. My neighbors and/or roommates included Jim (James) Gurney, Tom (Thomas) Kinkade, Paul (Paul) Chadwick, Bryn Barnard, Laurie Newell, Alan Munro, a bunch of sometimes-entertaining drunks, a fat landlady with a collection of clown paintings, a paranoid woman who believed men in helicopters stole food from her fridge when she was away, and oh, so many more.

For several years after going our separate ways the GP Gang stayed in touch by mail. We traded cassette tapes, photos, drawings, and such. Eventually time, families, growing careers, and chance broke up the club.

I still run across artifacts of those days. This image is one of them: a mail-order art jam. I apologize for the poor quality of the image. This is a scan of a color photocopy given to each of the participants after the original returned to its maker.
I believe Bryn Barnard started the jam with a Space Parrot floating against a blank blue background. I don't remember the order in which the next images were added. The distorted face was painted by Jim Gurney, the spacedog was contributed by his wife Jeanette, and the fellow in the robe was done by Paul Chadwick. Tom Kinkade did the landscape at the bottom. I was the last on the list. I couldn't figure out what to add so I finally framed the entire image with a monitor and installed a 1930's space babe in the foreground.

I know Jim and Tom painted their bits in oil; I believe Bryn used acrylic. Paul's figure is painted in the gouache style he was using at the time, but I don't know for sure which medium he or Jeanette used. I painted mine in casein. The original was about 8 inches square on a piece of heavy illustration board.

God, I loved those old GP Jams!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Dino Battaglia

Death and the Gambler

"Death and the Gambler" is one of my favorite short stories illustrated by Dino Battaglia, a giant of Italian comic art. It appeared in Corriere dei Piccoli in the late 1960s, and was the first of a series of short-story adaptations Battaglia illustrated. Battagtlia's unique style, with scratchboard textures cloaking his lovingly-detailed world in mist, perfectly complements Prosper Merimee's enjoyable fable set in a world in which the old pagan gods coexist with Catholic Christianity. I love the story as much as I do the art.

By the way, this series also offered Battaglia the opportunity to show his very personal and very effective color technique. I scanned these pages from tearsheets of the original CdP printing. After experimentation I decided not to attempt to "whiten the pages" because all my efforts spoiled Battaglia's color. So here it is yellowed pages and all.

Just in case you wonder as I did the first time I read the story, the bearded guy on the second page is Saint Peter.

What I like about the story is that Federigo, not a bad man at heart, manages to live both the good life and the good afterlife. He's one of those merry tricksters you read about in analyses of myths...not many people can con the Big Man himself!

I don't know if Merimee was first to use the Death-up-a-tree gimmick, but the idea's reappeared several times since. For example in the 1939 movie On Borrowed Time, Lionel Barrymore traps Death in the backyard apple tree using the same subterfuge Federigo uses.