Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Fans of Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman and other popular graphic novelists argued last week that I am wrong to expect "slick, commercial" values in art about the tortured soul of an artist. Technical skill and pretty designs may be important for selling Coca-Cola, but are less relevant to today's more "authentic" and personal artwork, with its tragic messages of alienation.

I admit it's difficult to criticize work such as Maus or Fun Home merely because the authors don't draw well.  Still, an artist who chooses to work in a visual medium can't simply ignore the qualities of that medium.

More importantly,  I don't think the epithet "commercial" is a reliable tool for separating good art from bad.  There are many awful pictures of heartfelt subjects, while there are many brilliant pictures of dish washing detergent or automobiles.  As far as I can tell, nobody has yet established a connection between purity of motive and quality of art.  (As Oscar Wilde noted, "A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.")

It is possible that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation," but after trudging through Chris Ware's endless stories of slow misery, we might wish desperate men would be a little quieter.

If pure motives and authentic emotions are what you seek in art, I'm not sure you'll find much difference between commercial illustration, graphic novels and pictures hanging in the Museum of Modern Art.  They can all be equally commercial. (Andy Warhol famously remarked that "good business is the best art.")  So before you accept mediocre drawing and bad compositions as the trade off for authenticity,  check out some of the following"outsider" artists.  They are every bit as tormented as Alison Bechdel or Chester Brown, yet they still manage to meld their feelings with beautiful compositions and quality images.

For example, the artist Henry Darger was an impoverished janitor who lived for 50 years in a shabby apartment so tiny he had to sleep sitting up. He worked far into the night illustrating his magnificent graphic novel, In the Realms of the Unreal.

Darger led a life of isolation and pain that makes Jimmy Corrigan's life look like a day at Disneyworld. Yet, Darger's artwork is filled with dazzling images. He did not use his suffering as a justification for ignoring the challenges of composition, design, color or the other ingredients of his chosen medium. His beautiful pictures were able to advance, rather than work in opposition to, his troubling personal message.

It is also worth noting that Darger's text never dwelled on his own suffering and insecurities. Instead, he elevated his personal misery to tragedy through his art. You will find no self-obssessed whimpering in Darger's work.

He kept these illustrations to himself until the day he died. He was not working to impress the critics or collect royalties. He used art in a genuine struggle with his own personal demons.


Another "outsider" artist I admire,  James Hampton,  lived a lonely life obsessing about religious salvation. Beginning in the late 1940s, Hampton began writing about his religious visions using pictograms and secret codes.

He drew marvelous symbols such as lightning bolts and omniscient eyes. Hampton spent the last fifteen years of his life integrating these symbols and pictograms into astonishing sculptures comprised of aluminum foil, light bulbs and pieces of old furniture.

He called his strange and beautiful masterpiece, "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly."

James Hampton

Like Darger, Hampton was not trying to get a deal with a Manhattan gallery or to impress Art News.  He was not trying to tell the world about the unfairness of his life as a janitor. Hampton's own landlord had no idea what Hampton was up to. After Hampton died, his landlord was shocked to discover Hampton's masterpiece in the unheated garage where Hampton had labored all those years.

The Throne of the Third Heaven is made up of 177 separate art objects, combining words, symbols, drawings and sculpture. Standing before it, the cumulative effect is enough to inspire dread for your immortal soul.

Although they never received the celebrity status of a Spiegelman or Ware, I think Darger and Hampton's work is far superior.  Darger and Hampton worked with greater handicaps, under more difficult circumstances, and yet made better art. 

And there are plenty of other artists out there like Darger and Hampton.  Often untrained, working in obscurity and poverty, ignored by the New York glitterati, "outsider" artists work only to serve their god or their muse, or sometimes their alien leaders on the planet Zarbtron.



There is also an important philosophical distinction to be drawn here, which should probably be irrelevant to a blog about illustration, but which I confess colors my judgment of this art. 

It seems to me that these outsider artists responded to their personal pain and to the weight of their humanity in a more noble, less self-indulgent way than the graphic novelists who are winning Pulitzer prizes and big royalties for sharing their pain with us. 

The guys who seem to understand the most about this tragedy business-- Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes-- remind us that suffering and doom are an inescapable part of the human condition, but seemed to believe that we retain one meager defense: the tragic hero's capacity to elevate mere misery into the majesty of tragedy. This is done through courage, perseverance and understanding in the face of hopelessness. (Not much of a consolation prize, I admit, but hey, what other options are you offering?) My purely subjective judgment is that Jimmy Corrigan dwells at the misery level. I find no nutritional content that would reward a second or third reading.

There are thousands of "outsider" artists, some making beautiful art, many making terrible art. But if you are the type who rejects "commercialism" in art and strives for artistic purity, put down your graphic novel and invest a little time with real outsiders.  If the fragrance of commercialism offends you, you must be prepared to hang around artists who don't use soap regularly.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


John Ciardi once said, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves they have a better idea.” Since we've been rambling for the last few weeks about modern art trends, I thinks it makes sense to heed Ciardi's advice and spend a moment visiting the paintings of Erich Sokol, the gifted illustrator / cartoonist for Playboy magazine.

Sokol had a splendid sense of light, color and atmosphere. He was far more talented than traditional pin up artists such as Vargas, whose uninspired paintings now sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

Note the confidence with which Sokol handles the stripes of light on the beach in the following painting, or his treatment of the foliage in the background. Nothing is labored, and no unnecessary details.

Although the beautiful girl was always the centerpiece of the cartoon, if you look closely you will see that Sokol had more fun painting the male counterpart-- the fat doctor, the grizzled farmer, the blustering general all left him more room for creativity.

Friday, February 17, 2006


If you are located within a thousand miles of New York City, I urge you to make your way to the Dahesh Museum of Art (http://www.daheshmuseum.org) to see a breathtaking collection of 90 original drawings and paintings from the golden age of illustration.

The exhibition is making a rare guest appearance from the private collection of Richard and Mary Kelly. If you don't take advantage of this oppportunity to see them, you may never get another chance.

The exhibit includes superb examples of art from all the greats-- Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Dean Cornwell, Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker and a host of others. It is impossible to walk through this exhibition, crowded with powerful, vivid images, and emerge without renewed respect for these talented, imaginative artists.

The exhibition continues through May 21, 2006. It is accompanied by an excellent catalog with numerous color reproductions.

In one of the catalog's essays, the chief curator of the Dahesh quotes a letter from Vincent van Gogh in which van Gogh admires Howard Pyle's "wonderful" drawings. When you look at the Pyle drawings in the Kelly collection, I'm sure you will agree with van Gogh

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Was there ever a comic strip marriage as great as the marriage of Mary Perkins and Pete Fletcher in Leonard Starr's strip, On Stage? Mary and Pete had a wonderful relationship, smart and playful and mature-- the opposite of the bleak relationships in graphic novels by Chester Brown or Chris Ware.    

For Valentine's day, I'm putting aside my customary rants and offering a bouquet of moments about day-to-day love from On Stage.

Just like in real life, Pete and Mary chatted in the bathroom getting ready for the day, or in the bedroom decompressing at night. Their dialogue had all the rhythm of an excellent, mature marriage-- something very rare in a medium often tailored to adolescents. Those of you fortunate enough to be in long term relationships this Valentine's day will recognize the following situation where the wife wants to discuss a couple from that evening's dinner party and the husband wants to go to sleep.

Studying these comic strips as a young boy, I learned a lot about drawing-- about anatomy, composition, how folds in cloth worked, etc.-- but I also learned inadvertently how relationships were supposed to work. Leonard Starr got me as far as high school, at which time my girlfriend-- now my loving wife-- took over my education. God knows what I would have understood about relationships if I had grown up reading R. Crumb.

Here we see one of the frequent diversions from the plot of On Stage, where Pete and Mary break into spontaneous play:


Next is a scene where Starr cleverly uses a domestic episode to show how Pete is readjusting to life in the U.S. after a traumatic experience as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Mary stumbles across Pete and their housekeeper trying to make the most spectacular ice cream sundae they possibly can. Pay attention to Starr's unconventional use of the language:


In this final example, Pete throws the dinner dishes out the window, rather than wash them:

No other comic strip could beat Starr's domestic dialogue.  

I just discovered that the whole wonderful On Stage series is being reprinted by Charles Pelto at Classic Comics Press.(http://www.classiccomicspress.com). I urge you to check it out. And Happy Valentine's Day.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Based on the traffic from my last post ("Drawing With Your Brains") I thought it was important to spell out my views on Chris Ware's artwork:

I enjoy Chris Ware's work, but the highbrow critics currently fawning over him drive me absolutely bats. Ware is being offered up as one of the few "Masters of American Comics" (the title of the exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art) and is feted at the Whitney Museum and in the pages of the New Yorker. Here is what the LA museum catalog says about him:

"I don't think anyone in any visual medium is making art that is more elevating."
"Ware is capable of creating beauty anywhere and always. Ware's work, in this way, is also quite like Bach's."
"There's glory there. We look at his work and we think of words like sumptuous and exacting and rhapsodic."
"His use of the page is unparalleled."

These people are morons.

50 years ago, there were a thousand anonymous paste up artists working for subsistence wages in commercial art studios across the country. They would sit at a drawing board with a T-square and a triangle, key lining ads for the backs of comic books and other lofty venues. Virtually all of them could draw as well as Chris Ware. Many could draw better. But because that was an era with different standards, they would have laughed at the suggestion that their drawings were good enough to hang in a museum. Today those artists have all disappeared, swept aside by technology and the invisible hand of Adam Smith. But Chris Ware is hailed for the same basic mechanical drawing skills.

I don’t begrudge any artist who has won the lottery in today's society, whether it’s Chris Ware or Thomas Kinkade. Ware has some admirable qualities. He is a decent writer and a diligent artist who has created his own interesting world. He is disciplined enough to create a substantial body of work, and the cumulative effect is showy. But if you deconstruct his accomplishment, you will find it easier to evaluate.

Ware’s work combines three disciplines: artist, graphic designer and writer. Taking them in order, it is hard to argue that his "art"-- the actual drawings inside the panels-- is anything better than competent. He draws in a monotone, with little of the variety, the sensitivity or wisdom of line, the composition, design, or the other qualities that have traditionally been the hallmark of great drawing. Ware would have made an excellent paste up artist, and that was an honorable profession, but anybody knowledgeable about sequential art or illustration should have no trouble identifying 500 superior artists.  (As an aside, Ware also hasn’t discovered that an artist who wants to depict a repetitive and bleak life cannot simply resort to repetitive and bleak drawings. Important lesson.)

Weak drawing skills are not fatal to a creative enterprise, so let's move on and talk about Ware's second (and more important) discipline, graphic design. Ware is more a designer than an artist. His designs can be interesting and sometimes even complex. However, the critic who wrote, “he really has no stylistic predecessors….No one can do what he does, so no one is even trying” is just plain ignorant.  He has obviously never heard of constructivism or the modernist school of commercial design, a mere 80 years ago. He must have missed the thousands of labels and posters and advertisements by underpaid and forgotten commercial artists who worked in the style Ware has now adopted.

That leaves the third component, his words. This is extremely important because the whole thrust of the "concept art" school is that so long as you are diagramming great thoughts or peerless words, it doesn't matter that you draw badly under traditional standards. My own view is that Ware’s words cannot compare with a good essay, play, or poem, so what is the advantage of reading literature adulterated by these pictures?  And that leads us to the bottom line:

Establishment art critics, always late to the party, think they are cool when they descend to the subculture of comix and sequential art. Yet, they can't seem to untangle the words from the pictures long enough to make an honest appraisal of either one. Literary critics tend to say "this person writes pretty well for an artist" while art critics tend to say "this person draws pretty well for a writer." But as a general rule one can't produce great works of art by combining merely good words with merely good pictures. Chris Ware's art is, IMO, merely okay. But that's not the worst thing in the world.

I hope this fleshes out my previous post on "Drawing With Your Brains." I have nothing against Chris Ware, who I'm sure is a fine fellow with a pure heart and deserves to make a good living as an artist.  Being canonized as a "Master of American Comics" unfortunately makes him a sitting duck for all of the silly statements and effusive praise from a tasteless group of taste makers.  However, I suppose that anyone who is repeatedly embraced as a genius has to be prepared to hear alternative opinions.

As I said my previous post, I sincerely welcome any examples, jpgs, quotations or explanations of Ware's work that help me understand where I missed the boat.