Wednesday, October 08, 2008

AN ESSAY ABOUT CARTOON BACKS


Just some more random thoughts about back shots.

How do you like this drawing by George McManus for the Maggie and Jiggs newspaper strip? Mc Manus no doubt liked back shots because he had a strong graphic sensibility and back shots were a chance to use value to unite lots of people into a single shape. There really is such a thing as a group mind so the technique re-inforces the way the group actually behaves in the story.

Check out the shoes and spats that feel like wooden clogs , the mysterious eye-like back buttons, and the heads that fit into the collars like ice cream cones.




Sorry about the bad cropping and the blur (above). I'm working with an unfamiliar scanner.

Anyway, how do you like the way Davis and Kurtzman arranged the rhythm of the panels on this "Lone Stranger" page? Front shot, back shot, front shot, back shot...then three similar panels that gently morph from a back shot into a profile. Veeery nice!

But that's not my favorite thing. My favorite thing is the way back shots are given almost as much attention as front shots. That's unusual. Artists usually emphasize the front because that's the way people like to be seen and photographed in real life.  Take that away from a character and there's a feeling that the character's not in control of his own story, that a director's hand is evident.  The character's denied the right to conceal his most vulnerable side. He has no privacy, and something about that is funny.

Let us digress to ask, "What is a back?" Let's face it, for a guy it's a ball of hair on a spinal chord leading to a dirty old butt. The good side of everything faces forward; that's the side you want the world to see. The back side is...well, what's left over. If your shirt is going to ride out, or your pants sag, it's probably going to show up first in the back. The flab you conceal in the front is only concealed because you pushed it to the back. Dandruff collects there, as do "kick me" signs. Lay on the grass and your back is full of dirt and spiders. The gloves that look so heroic and manly from the front, just look like plain old workman gloves from the back. Dramatic actors are allowed to hide all this, and aim their best assets at the audience. Comedic characters are expected to bare all for the good of the show.

So that's what I like about the Lone Stranger. He's funny because he's a helpless pawn, made to be humiliated by an artist, yet he's full of self-confidence and a spirit of independence. Back shots help to convey that.



I often dread looking at the back shot character models generated by normal studios (the profile above is from Spumco, definitely not a normal studio). For them the back shot is a mathematical extrapolation of the information in the front. It's pretty obvious that they think the front is where the action is and the back is just information.


Thank God for John K! When John draws a back he always adds something of interest. The back should always contain new information, not visible from the front. It should always give us a new insight into the character.






Milt Gross (above) loved backs. He didn't worry about the details of technical draftsmanship, he just dove in and had a good time. Notice that his 3/4 back shots of the heads are really profile poses. Lots of cartoonists drew backs of the heads that way, sometimes even in animation. Nobody ever notices.



Me, I like to draw the back of the head dimensionally, even in print cartoons. There's something funny about it. T. S. Sullivant (above) was a master of that kind of humor.




Chester Gould might disagree. He hardly ever used back shots in Dick Tracy, in fact he'd go to ridiculous lengths to avoid them. How do you like the delicious awkwardness of the drawing above? I guess Gould couldn't draw backs, but who cares?


Al Capp picked up on Gould's back shot avoidance when he parodied Tracy in "Fearless Fosdick." Fosdick never gave us a look at the back of his head, even when the shot cried out for it, as it does above. Of course, Capp made the right decision, and so did Gould. It's funnier this way.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

these are !amazing! observations, I l love seeing cartoonists make fun of other cartoonists.

Ive talked to a lot of people in the animation industry in Canada and these ideas are completely foreign to them. Animation here is all about strictly moving around the fixed character designs around cluttered backgrounds.

This and John K's blogs have been huge eyeopeners to what cartooning and animation is capable of

The Jerk said...

it's all true! I also like using back shots to break up the monotony of "talking head" scenes, when you get creative with it, it can add visual interest to an otherwise dull drawing.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, up here we act as if the character designs were handed down from Mount Sinai, its insane.

You'll have a script written in Toronto, Storyboarded in Vancouver, backgrounds done in edmonton, key animation done in montreal and gruntwork done in atlantic canada.

Copernicus which John is working with is something of an exception and a lot of artists here derisively refer to them as wonky

Anonymous said...

Chester Gould was a genius but he had his demons. He drew himself as a midget voyeur, poised for a good wank with his left hand in the image you posted. Being a successful syndicated cartoonist kept him off the streets, at least.

John A said...

Interesting essay Eddie, but I have to disagree with you when you you ask "but what is a back?". I admit, it's one of the most neglected elements in modern cartoon design, but in reality, the back defines the entire figure-it's what holds everything else up.

We are built from back to front, it's how we elvolved- we started as a head, a heart, and a spinal column and everything else grew around them. Your ribs protect your heart and lungs, but they would be a lot less effective wthout the spine holding it all together. Years ago I had a sculpting instructor that stressed the importance getting the back view right before adding anything to the front of the figure. (he used to grouse that the figure drawing classes damage a students understanding of anatomy by focusing primaryly on the front veiw of a model, when everything in fact hangs off of the skeleton,which is held up by the spine) and its proportions and balance should be adressed if you want your work to be structurally sound.)

When we move, we balance the combined weight of our spine, ribs and head on our hip bone(s)and we position our legs in order to provide it with the maximum of support. This translates into our body language, an unlimited amount of poses that communicate even when our faces are obscured. Animators today seem to rely too much on faces and the perpetual 3/4 veiw, when in the past in seems cartoonist knew almost instictively that a back veiw can almost immediately communicate a characters personalty and thought process in a way that a lot of unnecessary dialogue often fails to convey. Back views, combined with the right low angle medium angle or high angle can let an audience know instantly that a charater is large and powerful or diminutive and meek. Clampett , Mckimson and Jones all used back views as a staging device, or to communicate a charcter's thoughts, or sometimes just for its pure comedic value (if a person DOESN'T think rear ends are funny, they have no business working in the cartoon field)

Great back veiw of a John K "lummox" characterBTW. John K recently posted on Jones' Lummox characters and all the funny drawing that went into them. Jones knew how to design a character to be funny from all angles, and he made sure that he didn't neglect the humorous elements of a Lummox's back, like generous use of neck rolls , back fat and elbow wrinkles.

Caleb said...

Great examples, Eddie. I like the part about adding insight into the character. I posted a picture of Buster Keaton intentionally posing backwards here

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

John A: Interesting comment! Both are true, really. The back is the noble spine of the body, and it's simultaneously that humans abuse it, and treat it with neglect.

Caleb: Great Keaton poses! Do you mind if I post a couple here?

Owen Heargraves said...

Can anyone out there send me a link to the picture on animationarchive.org of the angry animation director telling the animator "You call that good animation? Youre fired" I have a friend whos a director that would find that hilarious.

The animation archive is an amazing site and resource but it has so much content now that it needs a complete overhaul as far as layout goes

Aaron said...

I love drawing that three quarters back of head shot cuz people don't catch you sketching them that way.

jack raffin said...

oh MAN, what a hilarious and intersting post. this one made me laugh out loud & smile thruout. goddamn, that fearless fosdick panel is GREAT.

and i never really thought about it but characters in spumco cartoons have backs that are as interesting as the front (always will remember those little bumps on ren's spine). kowalski was MADE for back shots, almost. christ, it's like a character in itself.

jack raffin said...

oh, and man, milt gross is so funny. love that guy's work haha

Jenny Lerew said...

For my money the human back is as expressive and truly beautiful as any other view--often more so. I am astonished you so disparage it.

Men and women whose "fronts" might not impress in any way can be quite beautiful fro the back-the curve of the spine, the neck, the ears, the shoulders. It's all fantastic and a real joy to draw. I love drawing women especially from the back view. Great curves.

trevor said...

I always thought it was funny how John wasn't the first person to put butt cheeks on cartoon characters, and yet, whenever it's done now-a-days, people call it 'Kricfalusian'.

People's memories really are for shit, huh? Does no one remember Betty Boop? Or Porky Pig? Or any of the Clampett cartoons?

And the Spumco artists are the beneficiaries of old school rules with new school ideas with that thinking. I couldn't tell you what Hank Hill or Peter Griffin look like from the back, but I know what Bugs Bunny's tail looks like.

Very interesting post, Eddie! You should write for an animation magazine.

- trevor.

Caleb said...

Eddie, it's no problem if you use those Buster pictures. Here's the site I got them from:

Buster Keaton

and that is part of "Silent Ladies & Gents" which has more great photos:

www.silentladies.com

miss 3awashi thani said...

there really should be more back shots. i find backs very sexy personaly.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Caleb: Thanks a million!

Jenny: You're right, the back is the noble spine of the body and is crucial. It's also a funny and neglected wasteland. It depends how you choose to see it.

Trevor: Thanks!

John R. Spumkin said...

Seeing that Kowalski Spumco picture...I have a bit more to work with in order to find out exactly what Ren saw when Kowalski pulled down his pants.

I've considered everything from an inhumanely large testicular fortitude to the unspeakable horror that is Date Movie...

The world may never know!

Andreas said...

Don't know if anyone has mentioned this before, but I saw on the morning news around the time of your original back shots post a guy that makes a good living doing "butt sketches." It was an interesting concept. http://www.buttsketch.com/

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Andreas: Holy Cow! Caricaturists who only draw backshots! Truly an idea whose time has come!