Thursday, June 18, 2009


I know of no form of land-based personal transportation that's more fun to ride than a horse, but a close second is a glorious, full-blown passenger train pulled by a real steam locomotive. America should be laying track, not ripping it up.

Imagine how bracing it would be to ride in an open flat car with seats, under a canopy of trees like this (above). I did that a few years ago and the experience was so moving that I'll likely never forget it.

It's amazing that a noisy, heavy, industrial product like a locomotive should fit in so well with nature.

Maybe steam trains seem so environmentally friendly because they're confined to a narrow set of tracks, and don't make frequent stops. Maybe it's because the trains seem more like animals than machines. They actually have character. You root for them as they try to negotiate a hill.

Oh bliss!...riding along the treetops...the treetops!...and across a stream on a trestle!

Oddly enough, it's not the steam power by itself that makes trains so appealing. Put the same boiler and funnel on wheels (above) and it seems like a senseless nuisance. For some reason a train has to ride on rails to capture our imaginations.

My guess is that the appeal has to do with the uniquely pleasing and stimulating sounds and motions of steam trains on tracks...that and the terrific visuals. As I said before, steam trains seem to have personalities. There are few other machines you can say that about. I suppose mechanical clocks have a little of that quality. Even toasters have a bit of it.

This business of pleasing sensations derived from things seems like an odd subject to discuss, yet when you think about it, it's not discussed enough. I wish there was a book that catalogued things like this. If there was, then architects and designers could refer to it. Wouldn't it be nice to walk through a building that combined interesting tactile and aural cues with stimulating and romantic visuals? Wouldn't it be nice to have more items and buildings in the world that had appealing personalities?

Here's (above) the Disneyland Express entering a tunnel. Tunnels are so mysterious, and so congenial to trains. They appear like a gateway to another world, like the rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland." There should always be lush greenery around a tunnel.

Geez, I have to use Hello Kitty photos to show what the interior of the Disneyland passenger cars look like. It's embarrassing! Anyway, the idea that passengers should face the side is an interesting one.

Disneyland-size steam railroads should be all over the suburbs of our big cities, and they should be used for real, practical transport, not just entertainment. The first city to try this will see a big rise in income from tourists.

I like this photo (above) because it shows how naturally small steam trains fit in with ordinary urban landscapes. Amtrack fails to do this because of the awkward and unimaginative design of the cars.

I stumbled on this photo (above) of a small, rural train platform that's fallen into disuse. Wow! Clean up the tracks and it'll be ready for business again. Let the plants try to cover the makes for an interesting atmosphere! It's like a train platform in the middle of Jurassic Park. You expect to see raptors!

Once we have steam trains back, we can phase in cool, 0ld-style train stations (above).

I grew up near a beautiful train station like the one above. I and my kid friends had many philosophical discussions while sitting on wooden benches under the platform roof. I especially liked to be there while it was raining, during a thunder and lightening storm. The station sheltered us like a kindly grandfather, and it was bracing to see giant, heavy locomotives hiss and shutter to a stop in the rain.

Why do we moderns deny ourselves the simple pleasures of life? I love high tech...I wish I had a personal jet plane...but I also like horses and small wooden sailboats. Since everybody else likes them too, why don't we re-instate them where ever it's appropriate? Cars are fine, but lets have other kinds of mass transportation too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I hate to admit this, but the last time I was in London, I went way out of my way to visit Baker Street in the hope of seeing 221B, the home of Sherlock Holmes. Of course I knew that Holmes was a fictional character. I mean, I'm not stupid... I didn't really expect to see him... no, I just thought I'd hang out around there just in case I might get a chance to see him. Please don't try to reason that out. I feel bad enough.

I met a lot of other like-minded people and we all ended up in the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which had a facsimile living room, reconstructed from the information in the books.

I expected to see clutter (that's an average living room of the period above) because that was the fashion in Edwardian England. Someone said that the interior design of that time was meant to trap any dust particle that found its way inside, and prevent it from ever finding it's way outside.

What I didn't expect was the extreme clutter that poor Sherlock had to put up with. No wonder he looks so waxy. You'd look that way too if you had to sit in near darkness all day long, unable to take more than two steps in a straight line. Even with a full time cleaning lady, this was apparently the best he could do.

Here's (above) Sherlock's chemistry corner. The poor guy had to sit on his violin in order to use it.

The chair is ripped. Is that significant? Did one of the stories mention a ripped chair? Geez, poor, poor Sherlock! I feel like passing around a collection plate for him.

Lot's of people leave the museum with the resolve to make their own home as cluttered and interesting as Holmes'. Here's (above) one effort in that direction. I kinda like it. Note the
Buster Keaton death mask on the wall.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I spent a few hours this weekend catching up with my comics reading. I started with Fantagraphics' Popeye series, the one with Olive Oyl on the cover. Wow! What a revelation! If you're a cartoonist laboring under the difficulty of creating gritty, earthy, and appealing characters, you could find no better inspiration than these E. C. Segar strips from 1930-32. Click to enlarge.

Olive Oyl's a great character. Time after time she dumps Popeye for someone better, then has to crawl back when it doesn't work out. Seegar evidently believed that some people are just meant for each other, and no amount of effort can change that.

I also read some of "The Kat Who Walked in Beauty," a collection of Herriman's Saturday pages from 1920. Sorry the sample strip (above) is split in into two parts. The source was too big for my scanner to take it in all at once.

This stuff is pure genius! Maybe modern readers have trouble with it because current humor is all about punchlines and hip attitude. In Herriman's day it had more to do with funny drawings, weird situations, ambience, parody of formal illustration, and silly staging. Anyway, if you've had trouble warming up to Herriman's Krazy Kat strips, but you're still curious to know why the man is so well-regarded, then this is the book for you. Buy it now, before it disappears.

The book calls these strips "panoramic." They're pretty long. Boy, some newspapers must have been as big as bed sheets!

I'm no historian, but surely Herriman was the co-inventer of the what we think of as the newspaper comic style. Herriman wasn't the first strip artist, but he must have been one of the first to work in a style which wasn't derived from book illustration and political cartoons. The style is truly funny and lends itself to infinite variety and expression.

The two pages above (fragmented, not related to each other) are from a graphic novel that's been around for years: "The Beauty Supply District" by Ben Katchor. I got it from the library for the art work and didn't even bother with the story. Now just an hour ago I discovered that the story might be worth reading after all, but it's too late...the book is due. I guess I'll have to take it out again.

Anyway, what attracted me were the backgrounds. They're so out in front that they completely overwhelm the characters, but you have to admit that they are interesting. It's funny that some artists are attracted things. Artists like that can never tune out the environment and historical context. They're always aware of the door behind them, and the varnish on the table top. It would be fun to do a cartoon story where different characters get different background styling, depending on their personalities.

The last artist I spent time with over the weekend was J. Otto Seibold, the kids book illustrator. He did the Mr. Lunch and Olive the Reindeer books. That's him above.

I found this (above) unrelated picture next to Seibold's on the net. I reproduce it here for the edification of the men on the site.

Sorry for the digression. Anyway, Seibold has an interesting style. The book jacket says he was the first kids book illustrator to do his books on the computer. He works in that wall-eyed post-modern style, but he manages to make it his own.

His earlier books (above) were colored conservatively.

Now he takes big risks with the color (above), and it's paying off. Seibold was a background concept artist on Pixar's "Monsters Inc." I wonder why they didn't use any of his architectural ideas. Seibold does films of his own, but the ones I saw always missed the mark. I wish I could have directed one of them, even though it's far from my style.

Seibold lives in San Francisco with his wife, author (I can't read the first name)___Vivian. She has a store that sells Seibold-type clothes and pictures, and which has interesting mannequins (above) throughout.

Seibold's much-imitated style is everywhere now (the picture above was done by another artist). Seibold is only one of many artists who do Seibold...but he manages to stay out in front of the pack.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I feel like such an idiot! Jim had a new sketchbook out and I didn't realize it until I saw a copy of it at the House of Secrets comic store in Burbank. My review: It's a winner! If you're an artist it's a must have!

I don't know how Jim does it. He's the only cartoonist I know who can make perspective (above) funny.

For Jim perspective isn't just a tool that adds volume and drama, it's a major part of the joke. Perspective is an attribute that his characters have, like red hair or a big nose. Sometimes you get the feeling that they're embarrassed to have all those lumps and angles.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be Jim Smith, and see the world through eyes attuned to perspective.

Even a walk down the street (above) would be interesting.

Jim looks at his shoes.

Well, back to the world of flat. If you want to see more of Jim Smith's world, go to his blog and buy his book. It's on my links in the sidebar.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


I don't know how many times I've heard cartoonists say that they wish they could live in a Cliff Sterret house. That's Cliff Sterret's work above, and I too would like to have a house (or at least a room) furnished like that. Come to think of it, I almost did.

In the early 80s there was a serious attempt to sell Cliff Sterret-type furniture. It started with a design studio in Milan called "Memphis," headed up by Ettore Sottsass. That's his studio's work above. Not everything in the photo is his best work, but you get the idea.

I remember thinking at the time that this comic-strip furniture wouldn't last forever, and that I'd better buy some stuff before it disappeared. Real Memphis furniture was out of my price range so I waited for cheaper knockoffs, but when they came the quality was lacking. Not only that but Memphis didn't always hit home runs. I kept waiting for knock-offs of the better works but they were a long time coming. Memphis took a big hit because of the timidity of furniture manufacturers, and Memphis's distaste for comfortable furniture.  

The Sterret influence was obvious to cartoonists, but I don't remember any art critic pointing it out. Critics were probably ignorant of cartoon styles. 

Try to deny that this vase (above) was influenced by Sterret!

Here's (above) some Memphis teapots. In this case the influence was probably Picasso or Picabia. It's funny how teapots are always on the front line of new design movements. I guess prototype ceramic pots are easier to make than steal cutlery.

This is my favorite Memphis design...the futuristic antler bookshelf painted with kid colors. I'd still like to have a shelf like this.

This sofa (above) would look great in a comic strip. I wonder why no newspaper artist of the 1980s  attempted to parody modern furniture styling in a strip. I mean parody it the way Sterret used to. Of course by the 80s the newspaper strips were almost as tiny as they are now. Maybe there was no room. 

Also, it looks like the sofa is made of cheap plywood with fabric stapled onto foam. Memphis had good ideas but you get the feeling that no one with real furniture know-how worked there. 

The designer of this table (above) must have channeled Sterret!

Sterret liked to design the patterns in draperies and chair covers, and so did Memphis. That's their work above.

Like I said, Memphis didn't always hit home runs. The chair above looks pretty uncomfortable. It would have looked great in a comic strip or a cartoon, though!