Tuesday, September 23, 2008
A lot of present day print cartoons look like they were executed by graphic designers, rather than cartoonists. The best examples, like the one above, are thoroughly professional and even lots of fun, but I still prefer the old styles. They seemed to have more to say about the human condition. A graphic artist's first concerns are all technical, things to do with repeating shapes, arcs, negative spaces and all that. A cartoonist on the other hand, is informed by design but is more interested in what's being expressed. Take George Herriman for example.
When compared to modern cartoons Herriman's work (above) looks positively untidy. Some of it looks more like sketchbook pages rather than formal drawings. The lettering is all askew and the cartoonist seems in danger of drifting off the point sometimes. Does it matter? There's a marvelous sense of fun and life here. You can see the artist struggling with his medium and with his own imagination. There's a sense of performance, of spontaneity. You feel the drawing could easily have spun out of control, but the artist brought all his skill to bear and wrestled it to a satisfying finish.
Some artists refer to Herriman disdainfully as "the Scratchy Artist," because his lines were always short and broken. I have to admit that I quit working in pen and ink because the results came out that way. Maybe I should have stayed with it. It occurs to me now that a lot of old cartoonists couldn't get around the problem either, and simply learned to live with it. They made scratchy into an art form. In the Herriman drawing above (click to enlarge) the scratchiness actually adds to the humor. It makes everything more comically ignorant, and makes for interesting textures.
Here (above) Herriman shows us his delight with the idea of riding around in wheeled vehicles, and the pleasure he takes in encountering hills and waterways and trestle bridges. Some cartoonists are sensualists who feel compelled to use the cartoon medium to express their delight with the physical world. I feel that way myself. Herriman reminds me of how privileged we all are to be alive and able to experience all this!
Sometimes (the two drwgs above) Herriman tuned out the environment and focused on cartooning for it's own sake. Sometimes you just have to draw characters all by themselves so you can surprise yourself with silly drawings that seem to posses a life of their own. Like all artists in their best moments, Herriman must have been amazed by the power of what he put on paper. I imagine that he must have felt like he was a conduit for some mysterious energy that exists in the world. Maybe that's when you know you've arrived as an artist, when you frequently find yourself "in a zone," watching the stuff that comes out of your pencil as if you were a spectator being awed by someone else's work. That's only an occasional feeling for me. For Herriman it must have been an every day experience.
BTW, all the Herriman here was courtesy of "The Stripper's Guide," a blog about old comic strips. Blogger won't accept my link for some reason.