Family Tradition

Today on the site, Joe McCulloch brings it all back home.

Elsewhere in this world:

After reading Joe the most important thing for you to do is watch this (NSFW) Throbbing Gristle video made a long ago by the great and under-appreciated French artists Bruno Richard and Pascal Doury (seen in the US mostly in RAW).

Still have time? Fine. Here:

This guy's view of contemporary comics is profoundly limited, but I like his analysis of mid-century realist comics technique.

Robert Boyd reminds us that great Canadian picture story The Cage has been reissued.

There's lots of movement at Archie Comics.

This is a slightly random look at Charlton Comics.

There's going to be a Frank Quitely documentary episode.

These images of Otomo posters installed for show are fantastic.

Our own Jacq Cohen enjoys a puff.

When I was a kid I used to be thrilled that Stan Lee was seemingly always meeting with a groovy French movie director named Alain Renais. Yeah baby. Alain Renais is dead now, but paper lives on.

If I was a cartoonist I'd be very very reluctant to publish in the same book as Ronald Searle. Anyway, here are images from a recent Searle exhibition and accompanying catalog.

52 Responses to Family Tradition

  1. Oliver 1000 says:

    “This guy’s view of contemporary comics is profoundly limited…”

    Apatoff is always infuriating. He knows his stuff – names, dates, publication histories, context – but as you say, he approves of nothing the least bit challenging in either form or content. He seems to have a real bug up his behind about how Mort Drucker is the most underappreciated artist of the 20th century or something. I mean, come on — Mort Drucker? In fact I remember him comparing him favorably to guys like Otto Dix or something… for fuck’s sake.

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    Yeah, he also appears to have a definition of “contemporary comics” that excludes most of what I think of as contemporary comics. I myself love Mort Drucker (more on that, I hope, later in the year) but under-appreciated is one thing he is not. You know who loves Mort Drucker? Two of my favorite humans: Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern. Speaking of which, I wonder where Howard keeps his David Choe portrait? A question for the ages. Not “comics” but actually comics, Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars series is really good because it’s all about Seinfeld.

  3. Oliver 1000 says:

    I like Drucker too, but he’s essentially the Rich Little of caricaturists. In fact, he’s probably drawn Rich Little at some point. That’s some through-the-looking-glass stuff right there.

  4. Corky Shondell says:

    Rarely have I seen such ignorance screaming “Look at me!” at the top of its lungs, in this case about “draftsmanship,” which, if you know what you’re talking about, is just another word for “Mort Drucker.”

    Maybe you have an issue with how Drucker used his gift, fine…sensibilities are what they are (Elvis would have made a fine operatic soprano) But wow, you’re underlining, in neon, the depth of your graphic illiteracy- your inability to recognize a gift of magnitude of Drucker’s, is, frankly, impressive.

    Some of the most skilled, beloved and important fine artists of the last few century couldn’t reach Drucker’s level of draftsmanship if they lived three lifetimes. He’s a freak among freaks – to able to study and then map a person’s head and then, from memory, rotate and draw it from every angle, with every expression, so faithfully that it doesn’t merely look like that person, it “feels” like that person. Who can do that? No one. And I’m not even mentioning compositional prowess and other niceties he excels at. Just the one I mentioned separates him from…pretty much everyone.

    Please. Go draw…draw a lot. A whole lot. Then revisit your assessment of Mort Drucker.

    As for Apatoff’s site, it’s both the best and second-best site on deftly drawn pictures. I don’t even know who is third.

  5. Corky Shondell says:

    “…inability to recognize a gift of THE magnitude of Drucker’s…”

    “…fine artists of the last few centurIES…”

    “…to BE able to…”

    Darn! Speed, conspiring with incredulaty and spell-correct! — CS

  6. Oliver 1000 says:

    Yes, and all that talent put to fine use in toothless, milquetoast parodies of third-rate TV shows of the 1970s… Surely he’ll be remembered next to the likes of Goya, Ingres, Cezanne, et al. For the ages!

  7. Corky Shondell says:

    No, he won’t. And I acknowledge that above with:

    “Maybe you have an issue with how Drucker used his gift, fine…sensibilities are what they are (Elvis would have made a fine operatic soprano)”

    Which is why I kept my argument to “draftsmanship.” And on that particular skill, he’s as good as anyone that’s ever lived, for the simple reason that one can’t be better at it without actually being a video camera that warps and stylizes.

    Can’t you see that?

    His level of draftsmanship – which I define as ability to draw – is astonishing and though equaled, unsurpassed.


    (ps: of the fellas above, only Ingres, himself a human camera, had a Drucker-level of draftsmanship. The others’ strengths lie in being visionaries of a different sort. cs)

  8. R. Fiore says:

    I think the fellow’s troubles as a critic begin and end with a weakness for tendentious comparisons. Taking one panel here or there of this or that cartoonist isn’t raising a question of cherry-picking, it’s convicting yourself. The page of Chris Ware he picks, however, shows once again that an artist who can withstand hostile quotation is an artist to conjure with. I don’t think it can be denied that there was a level of chops in the peak years of the newspaper strip that isn’t seen anymore, but I’d pick someone with a little more personality than Leonard Starr as an example.

    Mort Drucker is an unfortunate example of the Golden Graveyard. Committing his talents to the Mad parody, which is essentially heckling, condemns him to being Hirschfeld for teenagers. Perfect subject for Apatoff’s methods though: For a single panel Drucker will always look like a genius.

  9. Mike Hunter says:

    Corky Shondell says:
    …. on [draftsmanship, Drucker is] as good as anyone that’s ever lived, for the simple reason that one can’t be better at it without actually being a video camera that warps and stylizes.

    …His level of draftsmanship – which I define as ability to draw – is astonishing and though equaled, unsurpassed.

    …only Ingres, himself a human camera, had a Drucker-level of draftsmanship…

    So “draftsmanship” is to be reduced to the ability to be “a video camera that warps and stylizes,” “a human camera”?

    Drucker is certainly a splendid talent (

    However, to think that higher-level caricature skills somehow makes him an “unsurpassed” draftsman reminds of Raymond Chandler’s famous dismissal of Alan Ladd (considered as a possible Philip Marlowe) as “a small boy’s idea of a tough guy.”

  10. Corky Shondell says:

    Terrific discourse!! I wish I had time to engage more thoroughly in this conversation but I’m on the fly.

    I get your Chandler quote, I do (shot at me notwithstanding : ), but AGAIN I will remind you all that I’m putting aside HOW Drucker chose to use his skill – I’m talking about his raw ability to draw. Peak draftsmanship ends around the point you can’t tell the difference between the art and the real thing. Drucker could do that..and then even distort it while,remaining faithful to the subject. And he could do that from every angle and with every expression…and with little reference.

    Ingres may very well had a difficult time translating his draftsmanship into caricature. But to be able to caricature on the level that Drucker did, you MUST be able to draw as well as Ingres.

    I saw this in real time once: Two great artists, David Levine and Burt Silverman, who also happened to be great friends. Looking at the same model, Levine challenged Silverman, a master draftsman and arguably one of the great portraitists of the last 50 years, to draw the model in caricature, while he, Levine (and one of the great caricaturists of the last 50 years) drew a “straight” portrait.

    Silverman simply couldn’t…though he had the draftsmanship skill in spades! Levine however did a dead-on portrait. Dead. On…with likeness and feeling.

    Is this coming across? I’m sorry I have to dash…Also, if mine is not an acceptable definition of draftsmanship, I’m delighted to read your own definition and maybe I can continue off of that.

    Cheers, CS

  11. Howdy boys– a friend suggested I mosey on by and see what the commotion is all about. I hope you don’t mind if I offer a few thoughts.

    It’s quite possible that I have a profoundly limited view of contemporary comics, but there are other possible explanations as well. I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for old masters such as Leonard Starr, Mort Drucker and Noel Sickles. I show their work often because I think they are under appreciated (yes, even Drucker when you compare his reputation to that of Hirschfeld, Levine or Sorel). I also admire the way they maintained high standards every day for 50 years in an era before cartoonists received copyrights, movie royalties and Pulitzer prizes. They are too old now for twitter or tumblr now, so few people would see the originals I share if I didn’t post them. God knows Frank Miller or Kate Beaton don’t need any publicity from me, and the world doesn’t need another blog recycling the same material everyone has already seen.

    On the other side of the ledger, if I seem a little harsh with the superstars of today, much of that is directed at critics and museum curators who, having belatedly discovered comic art, are now catching up by spouting a lot of mindless hyperbole. It’s one thing to note that Spiegelman is a great innovator who writes powerful stories, or that Ware is a pioneer and master designer, but when the New York Times anoints Spiegelman the “Michelangelo” of comics, or labels Ware’s drawings “sublime” (“Ware is the most versatile and innovative artist the medium has known”) I worry that there may be somebody out there ignorant enough to believe it. In my view, that’s when intervention becomes necessary, “not for the sake of persuading those who don’t understand, but for the sake of defending those who do.”

    None of this stops me from going to small press expo each year in search of new talent. I’d welcome any names you care to proffer, along with any criticisms of my judgments. That’s the only way we grow.

    Thanks for listening, always happy to chat about these issues.

  12. Oliver 1000 says:

    I’d say your main problem is the confusing of the terms “drawing” and “art” — the former has a narrower, more mechanical meaning which you seem to inflate until it occupies the whole of a creator’s worth. When a newspaper article says Ware is the “most versatile and innovative artist the medium has known” they’re not talking about his rendering skills or understanding of anatomy (as important as those things are) but instead his grasp of the form in totality (and that includes writing/content — as brilliant as Sickles, Toth, Starr, Drake, etc. all were as technicians, their subject matter was generally the most puerile junk this side of network TV. They were like good cinematographers who never worked on a decent film.)

  13. Oliver 1000, we seem to have a difference of opinion in two key respects: I think more highly of drawing than you do, and less highly of the writing/content/”totality” than you do.

    On the first point (drawing), it’s an old, old dispute. From Michelangelo (“Let this be plain to all: design, or as it is called by another name, line-drawing, is the source and very essence of painting, sculpture, architecture and every other kind of painting, and is the root of all sciences. Let him who who has attained the possession of this be assured that he possesses a great treasure.”) to Milton Glaser (“There is no instrument more direct than a pencil for the expression of ideas. Everything else that interferes with the direct relationship with the eyes, the mind, the arm, and the hand causes a loss of fidelity, if I can use that word this way. I like the idea that this ultimate reductive simplicity is the way to elicit the most extraordinary functions of the brain. “) some pretty impressive characters would disagree with your view that drawing “has a narrower, more mechanical meaning.” You’re not totally alone– Andy Warhol gave a talk at the Society of Illustrators and said, “art must transcend mere drawing” at which point Albert Dorne interrupted him, saying “Pardon me Andy, but there’s nothing all that fucking mere about drawing.” So you and I just come down on different sides of that divide. If you think I have a “problem” and am “confused” for not adopting your definition, at least Michelangelo shares my problem.

    On the second point (content), you seem to think that Ware’s drawing ability is redeemed by his content, while the drawing ability of Sickles, Toth, Starr and Drake is undermined by their subject matter (“the most puerile junk this side of network TV.”) Here’s why I disagree with your assessment: to paraphrase Mike Hunter paraphrasing Raymond (above), Chris Ware is “a small boy’s idea of existential angst.” How much Dostoevsky have you read? How much Kafka? How much Eugene O’Neill? Ware’s tale of woe is sad but compared to serious artists confronting the void in serious ways, his work has a whiny, bleating, self-obssessed tone that is most likely to impress those who have spent too much time reading comic books (no offense). Other artists who have struggled with the same mission before Ware have recognized that they can’t depict a repetitive and bleak life by making repetitive and bleak drawings. Ware seemed to have trouble figuring that out for the first decade, although he seems to be doing better now. Personally, I think Starr is the stronger writer, although I certainly give Ware points for sincerity and for pain. I’m just one of those who thinks that exposing your entrails doesn’t necessarily translate into superior art. Again, this is a small boy’s notion of how art is supposed to work.

    Finally, you echo a sentiment that some of the other commenters here have advanced– that drawings are somehow inadequate because you think their accompanying words are “puerile junk.” (R. Fiore above calls it the golden graveyard: “Mort Drucker is… committing his talents to the Mad parody, which is essentially heckling, condemns him to being Hirschfeld for teenagers.”) I have a very different reaction to that phenomenon, which I have discussed on my blog. (If you have any interest, you can find my views here: and if you want another example you can find it here: Basically, I wrote that Drucker was assigned to depict “much of the raw sewage of American popular culture: third rate television shows that quickly imploded and movies that should never have been made. Yet, he drew these pictures with the same loving care others might reserve for the immortal themes on ancient Greek vases.” I find a certain nobility in that artistic response, and I was quite pleased to find that I was not alone. When I posted those discussions on my blog, I was privately contacted by a few well known artists who well understood the trade offs in life and who thought all the more highly of the artists I was writing about because of their accomplishment. I kinda gather that you won’t be among those contacting me, but give it ten years and think about it again.

  14. Corky Shondell says:

    Well, I’m back…and I was going to write something, but instead I’ll take a moment to imagine everyone’s expressions as they realize they’ve brought knives to Apatoff’s gunfight.

    Mr Apatoff…Clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap…


  15. Robert Fiore says:

    I don’t mean to denigrate your writing; I think it’s very good. If you say there’s more for a critic of visual art to write about in Leonard Starr or Mort Drucker than in Art Spiegelman or Kate Beaton I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. Nobody does Spiegelman any favors when they put his work on the walls of a museum. But then, it’s like Cole Porter’s answer when one of his friends said that Fred Astaire would have made better casting for the movie of his life than Cary Grant: “Would you turn it down?” By the same token, however, no comics critic makes himself look good by writing dismissively about good comics. Since the work of Starr and Drucker existed for decades before the work of Spiegelman or Chris Ware it’s absurd to say that the value of the former is measured in relation to that of the latter. Leave us not forget that a comic strip is a narrative. Someone reading a year of Mary Perkins or Mad movie parodies next to the World’s Fair section of Jimmy Corrigan or Chester Brown’s bible comics or Maus is going to have a much different impression on the merits of each than if they look at isolated panels. A.J. Liebling once pointed out that some good books are better written than others. You could say with as much justice that some good comic strips are better drawn than others.

    When you pick out that particular sequence of Chris Ware as a negative counterexample what you actually show is that Chris Ware can depict mental states that Leonard Starr would never touch. On the other hand, there is a hell of a lot of more drama in a Leonard Starr strip than in a Chris Ware strip, and that’s not insignificant. Where I get brought up short on soap opera strips, which might not be altogether fair, is that I wouldn’t watch that sort of material on television, or listen to it on the radio, or read it in a book or magazine, so why would I want to read it in a comic strip? You know that line about how it’s harder not to read an Ernie Bushmiller than it is to read it? Soap opera strips have exactly the opposite effect on me. Which means of course I’m not entitled to pass any judgment on them. An interesting comparison might be Leonard Starr’s Little Orphan Annie (never saw it myself) and Harold Gray’s.

    Mort Drucker is like Alex Toth: It was the work of others to provide them with material that was worthy of their talent, and those others fail then it’s on them. I don’t know that there’s anybody who could get more humor out of a human face. When you did that post about the work Drucker put into the little knob (which, you know, could have just been correcting a mistake rather than perfecting the knob), what I thought was more to the point is the work he put into the face of the Arab. But could you tell me what Mort Drucker’s point of view was? I don’t think his humor went far beyond good-natured ribbing. What subject of a Mort Drucker caricature ever had his feelings hurt by it?

  16. Robert, you don’t need to worry about denigrating my writing, just take a number and get in line. The important thing is the merits of the underlying art.

    I get told a lot that it’s not permissible to compare one kind of art with another. Museum curators impatiently explain that I’m not allowed to compare lowly illustration with “real” art. Academics scold that I can’t discuss religious art in the same breath as commercial entertainment. For me, a lot of these boundaries are purely artificial distinctions for marketing purposes or to preserve class lines. And of course, comparisons can be fruitful for some purposes but misleading for others. (I think your lack of interest in putting up with soap opera material is a perfectly legitimate market test, and is part of the reason that soap opera strips have died out. I apply the exact same standard to Ware’s work; I think he takes a mountain of work for a mole hill of a conclusion, so his return on investment doesn’t make me eager to read more. I read it mostly for its importance.)

    Ultimately, any criticism will have to stand or fall on its own merits– whether it makes sense to readers and illuminates the work. If the writer doesn’t make the effort to respect and understand what each genre has to offer and compare them on a level playing field, people will smell what you’re up to and disregard whatever you write.

    I do find it incongruous that the people who get the most indignant when I cross boundaries are the fans of artists who themselves cross boundaries. They love it when Chris Ware commingles different art forms, but get agitated at the prospect of comparing his work with a soap opera strip. Mostly I think people just like to shield their favorites from any kind of criticism.

    I understand and share your concern about what and how much to excerpt from these artists. “Taking one panel here or there of this or that cartoonist” is necessarily limiting but what’s the alternative? I think we have to do our best to pick representative samples to highlight specific points. If a critic is dishonest and uses unrepresentative examples, eventually the criticism will fall of its own weight. The best way to hasten that process is to provide counter-examples.

    Thanks for reading my blog post about Drucker’s knob. I assumed he made a mistake, but a mistake that would go unnoticed. What mattered to me was that after 40 years of drawing knobs, he cared.

    I agree that it is interesting to compare Starr’s Annie with Harold Gray’s. I don’t think anyone could ever be as successful with Annie as Gray was. Gray’s fundamental weirdness was at the heart of that strip, and no amount of skill could compensate for the loss of his eccentricity.

  17. Jeet Heer says:

    David — I would say the fundamental problem with your approach is a theoretical one. You don’t understand comics. Comics are a narrative form. That means that the words and images are in the service of a story and skill has to be measured with an awareness of overall narrative impact. If you wanted to you could judge the drawings in a comic simply as drawings in terms of technical skill, but that would be an exercise in missing the point, just as you could take a piece of lettuce out of salad and judge its aesthetic qualities as a leaf (is it very green? is it whole or chopped up? how does it compare to a potted plant?). Focusing on the leaf means missing the point of the salad, which is how it tastes and its nutritional value.

    The Leonard Starr and Harold Gray comparison is pertinent. On his worst day ever, Starr was a greater draftsman than Gray could ever hope to be. Yet Gray was a much better cartoonist than Starr. The explanation you offer has an element of truth but is far from the whole truth: “I don’t think anyone could ever be as successful with Annie as Gray was. Gray’s fundamental weirdness was at the heart of that strip, and no amount of skill could compensate for the loss of his eccentricity.” Gray’s weirdness was a symptom of something larger, that he was emotionally committed to the strip, he believed in Annie and her world, and despite his limited drawing skills could make readers viscerally share in that world and his convictions. Starr by contrast was a competent craftsman with no strong feelings about the stories he was telling (true not just of his Annie work but all his work). But even more: Gray understood comics, he understood how to tell stories, how to create hooks that engage the readers, how to create characters that readers respond to, and his limited art was perfectly suited to the dark, claustrophobic, and threatening world he lived in.

    So: cartooning isn’t drawing, rather drawing is a component used in cartooning for a larger end. (Of course pure drawing is an ancient and venerable art in its own right, but that ain’t cartooning). E.C. Segar wasn’t as good at drawing at Hal Foster, but Segar was the superior cartoonist. Jules Feiffer couldn’t draw within a light year of Wally Wood, yet with the exception of a few Mad stories that Wood did Feiffer was always a vastly better cartoonist than Wood (the Mad stories were laid out by Kurtzman, so work better as cartooning than the vast majority of Wood’s wooden work).

    As for Chris Ware being bleak, depressing and one-note — I think that’s a cliche of someone who has skimmed Ware’s work and refuses to engage in it at any emotional level. Anyone who has given Ware’s work the attention it deserves knows that the tonal range is far greater. The bleakness and despair are there but they are counterbalanced joy at the gift of existence — think of the architectural wonders of the Chicago Fair as conveyed in Jimmy Corrigan or the lyrical celebrations of the midwestern landscape (and its specific flora and fauna) in both Corrigan and Rusty Brown. I know of no work of art that conveys the complex pleasures of parenthood — the miracle of watching a child grow up in front of your eyes — in quite the way that Building Stories does. If you read Chris Ware and only get a sense that life is depressing,you are simply not paying attention.

    The problem with comparing Ware to Leonard Starr isn’t some phobia of linking him to the low form of soap opera. Gasoline Alley was a kind of Soap Opera and I think comparing Ware to Frank King is suggestive because the two artists have many affinity. The problem with the Starr comparison is that Starr is fundamentally not a a very interesting cartoonist, despite being proficient at drawing. There’s no emotional resonance in Starr as there is in the works of the truly great newspaper cartoonists (I mean figures like McCay, King, Herriman and Schulz. Also, although on a slightly lower plane, Gray, Gould, Crane and Caniff).

  18. Jeet, if my “fundamental problem” is that I “don’t understand comics,” imagine my good fortune in coming across someone who does. Once you explained that “comics are a narrative form,” the fog parted for me. So while I still have your attention, perhaps you will help me with a few additional questions:

    1.) You may not believe this, but there are people in the comics field who feel comfortable declaring the standards that others must apply when judging comics. For example, they’ll dictate that skill “has to be measured” a particular way. Or, they will announce their personal taste as if it were an established fact. (“E.C. Segar wasn’t as good at drawing as Hal Foster but Segar was the superior cartoonist.” or “Feiffer was always a vastly better cartoonist than Wood.”) My question is: since there is no visible support for any of these laws, could we possibly be witnessing the ipse dixit of the new Pythagoras?

    2.) There are people who seem to contend that sincere emotions are essential for a good strip and compensate for poor technical ability. (“Gray…was emotionally committed to the strip, he believed in Annie and her world…despite his limited drawing skills…. Starr by contrast [had] no strong feelings about the stories he was telling.” “There’s no emotional resonance in Starr as there is in the works of the truly great newspaper cartoonists… like McCay, King, Herriman and Schulz.”) Jeet, I had no idea this was the way things worked. Perhaps I was misled by the thousands of passionate artists who score 100% on the emotional commitment meter, but whose work looks like shit. But now that I understand, I have a great new idea for creating a comic syndicate representing only highly emotional artists. At first I was a little uncertain because– unlike some people– I don’t know the inner emotions of Winsor McCay, Leonard Starr or other artists. Then it struck me: I can get busloads of junior high school students whose emotions are running so wild, half them might be suicidal at any given moment. My only question for you is: Shall I put you down for a 40% or 60% investment in my new syndicate? I will email you the bank routing information for your wire transfer.

    3.) There seem to be people who use the hybrid status of comics (words combined with pictures) to evade serious scrutiny. If you evaluate the pictures by the standards applied to normal drawings, they say, “Oh, no no no– this is different. Don’t you see all these words?” If you evaluate the words by the standards applied to normal literature, they say, “Oh no no no– this is different. Don’t you see all these pictures?” They only seem content when cowed literary critics pass judgment on the pictures, while cowed art critics pass judgment on the words. My question for you is this: When do you think establishment critics will stop being so intimidated by the “newness” of graphic novels and so terrified of appearing “unhip” that they begin holding graphic novels to tougher standards?

    4.) I recently heard of someone who said, “I know of no work of art that conveys the complex pleasures of parenthood…in quite the way that Building Stories does.” I was thinking of calling the local Child Protective Services and filing a report. My question is: do you know their phone number?

    While I’m awaiting your answers, let me say for the thousandth time, I have absolutely nothing against Chris Ware, and if people would stop telling me he is “sublime” I could stop explaining why he isn’t. People repeatedly offer him up as the definitive counter-example, and as a result he ends up becoming the punching bag. I feel bad about that.

    P.S.– I like Harold Gray’s drawing, a lot. (

  19. Dave Hartwell says:

    Would the suggestion that John Lennon was a better song writer than Beethoven help or hurt in getting all parties to lighten up?

  20. Corky Shondell says:

    “Imagine” versus “The Moonlight Sonata”…tough one.

    Well, maybe the answer was revealed when Lennon and his pals chose the “Ode to Joy” to save Ringo’s life!

    Hey, I’m digging the dust-up. It’s educational on a few levels, not the least of which is that it reminds me of a National Geographic documentary where the hyenas are coordinating and circling their prey and then BAMM! a male lion bursts in and scatters them to the shadows.

    As far as I can tell, the Lion is still standing there. Unscathed.

  21. David Roel says:

    Can someone explain the child protective services joke?

  22. David Roel says:

    Didn’t Scott McCloud give us a way to avoid (or at least clarify) these conversations?:

  23. Jeet Heer says:

    @David Apatoff. “Since there is no visible support for any of these laws, could we possibly be witnessing the ipse dixit of the new Pythagoras?” The basic premise I’m starting with, the comics are a narrative art, can be debated but it has the merit of describing the actual experience of comics most of us have — of following a story from panel to panel or even intuiting a story within a single panel. There have of course been attempts at non-narrative comics (as in the interesting work collected in Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics volume) but even this work, if you live with it for awhile, starts suggesting narrative — an emotional narrative rather than a plot, but still a narrative. The other value of the premise that comics is a narrative art is that it can help explain the paradox that artists whose work is awkward, stiff or limited can sometimes make very successful comics. This claim isn’t just based on my say-so but is repeatedly evident in the history of comics. In fact, you’ve acknowledged this phenomenon as real by admitting that Gray’s Annie was superior to Leonard Starr’s version. If illustrational deftness were the beginning and end of comics art, then there is no way that Gray (under-rated as a visual artist but still a man with sometimes blunt abilities) could compete with so skilled a hand as Starr. But obviously there is more to comics than drawing ability, or even the ability to rehash stale soap opera plots. To re-iterate: no one would describe E.C. Segar as a great draughtsman — yet Popeye was both popular in its day and is still being reprinted today. The same is true of Feiffer. Feiffer has repeatedly said that he doesn’t think of himself as anywhere the level of illustrators that Milton Caniff, Will Eisner and others were. Yet Feiffer’s work has won a level of critical praise as great as if not greater than them, and certainly greater than that of Wally Wood. People like Flannery O’Connor raved about Feiffer whereas Wood’s work enjoys only a cult appeal within hardcore comic book fans.

    The problem with your critical methods is that you can’t really explain why artists like Segar and Feiffer were so successful (both commercially and aesthetically). That’s a major failing in comics critic.

    When you try to grapple with these issues, you invariably write nonsense. In your website you made this remarkable comment about Herriman’s Krazy Kat: “a sharper, more skillful style would have undermined the strip’s open, benign spirit.” What do we do with the idea that Herriman was deficient in the area of a sharp “skillful style” (certainly Herriman was no Leonard Starr!) but only achieved anything at all because the lack of a sharp, skillful style allowed the artist to display an “open, benign spirit” (maybe like a good-natured pot smoking hippy?). The sentence speaks to a sensibility that sees skill as divorced from narrative, that doesn’t recognize that Herriman far from lacking in style had the acuteness to know that style and story have to be seamless, that doesn’t understand that the drawings in Krazy Kat are inseparable from the world that is being created, and doesn’t have an inkling that the nature of this world is not just “open” and “benign” but also organic and imaginatively habitable. This account of the skill-deficient but still benignly open Herriman (so cute, he almost thinks he’s an illustrator!) derives from an approach to art that cuts us off from any real understanding of Krazy Kat.

    As for the role of sincerity and emotional engagement in art, I would say that they are necessary but not sufficient factors in the creation of potent works of art. If Gray had been as emotionally engaged with Annie as he was but utterly without storytelling skills, then the work wouldn’t have been very good. Luckily Gray was emotionally engaged, knew how to tell a story and could use his blunt but visceral visual vocabulary to its maximum effect. With Starr of course we have something more common in the history of commercial art: the skilled craftsman who has no emotional ties to his material. The result is eye-pleasing but emotionally shallow.

    As for Chris Ware’s handling of the experience of parenthood — it’s sad that you feel the need to mock that. You’re cutting yourself off from a powerful aesthetic experience.

    Let me try to end on a positive note: I enjoy your website quite a bit and like the work your doing researching mid-century realist cartooning, an interesting and under-appreciated current in the vast ocean of comics. Keep up the good work.

  24. Robert Fiore says:

    The alternative to picking a panel here or there is to examine the given work as a whole. You’re welcome. The art of cartooning is to a large degree the art of visually depicting inner states. That’s why the emotion that Chris Ware can bring to bear is significant. I would agree that it’s a bit of a one note performance; I’ve said so in reviews on this site.

    I’ve also written about the disparity in sheer ability between the classic newspaper strip cartoonists and the modern cartoonist. The way I put it was, it’s as if C.S. Forester addressed his subject matter with the verbal resources of Vladimir Nabokov, and vice versa. I suppose if you wanted to look at it that way you could say that the modern cartoonist’s resorting to deeper subject matter is cheating.

    You don’t see that high skill level in American comics but I think you do still see it in French comics, though they have their own issues. It may be a function of what will pay for a desirable standard of living. This is the other side of the Mort Drucker question. The Mad sinecure whatever its limitations allows him to do creative work; without it he might have spent as much of his talent on purely commercial work as Jack Davis.

    I thought the knob device was actually a highly effective way of drawing the reader into the picture.

  25. David, let me take a crack at this. To the extent that I understand your “beef,” it seems like you’re more at odds with critical and institutional responses to certain works than you are with the works themselves, which makes me wonder why you concern yourself with reading or acknowledging them in the first place. I certainly share your frustration with the degradation of critical standards and the often hyperbolic, cliché-ridden bromides that are pumped out, but I, for one, responded to the sad state of affairs as I do with any other annoyance I am faced with: utter disregard. Otherwise I’d go mad and waste an obscene amount of time shaking my fist.

    Where I would fault your criticisms, and believe they take on more than just a contrarian tinge, and veer towards sophistry, however unintentional, are the selectively-shifting standards you judge works by. A nearly-universal fault I find in critical responses to a work of art is a judgment based not on what the work of art is, but what it is not; what is not there, as opposed to what is there. This is the true pitfall of comparisons. By that measure, one can select any standard by which to dismiss or find fault with any and every work of art in existence. You obviously value draftsmanship highly, and I echo the sentiment that nowadays terms like avant-garde, and a reliance on emotional resonance and based-on-a-true-story-ism, are used to cover-up an underlying lack of skill. But you cast a wide net that ensnares even the undeserving: those that won’t fit into a narrow critical standard.

    To judge comics solely on its exclusive elements seems to miss the Aristotilian truth about the form: that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They can be composed of drawing, of painting, of cartooning, even of photography. And you can judge those elements to your heart’s content, naturally, but it seems always to be in contrast to the standards of another work of art, not the work in question itself. You don’t seem to be judging comics at all, really, but particular elements in certain works. So, to judge Chris Ware’s comics, which do not employ drawing, by a standard of drawing seems to me an exercise in futility, as is comparing the pacing of a strip with that of a page: the limitations of such an exercise are more telling than the conclusions. Would you compare a poem and a work of prose? I understand that you reject a distinction between drawing and cartooning, but I reject your rejection! They are, by their very natures, distinct. Drawing is illustrative by its nature and will always carry an inherent and overarching fidelity to reality, whereas cartooning is representational; it is implicit by its nature, whereas drawing is explicit.

    I enjoyed reading your analysis of Leonard Starr’s work, if for no other reason than I doubt I’ll otherwise ever read his stuff, and was indeed impressed by his draftsmanship and effective command of composition. I noticed, too, that your regard for composition extended to Harold Gray in your post on him. I also happened to notice that your critical affinity for Gray’s work stopped at the compositional, and made no mention of the fact that he was in no way a draftsman of any regard. Why was he spared this critical standard?

    What I think this all boils down to, rather simply, is that there are certain things you like and other things that you don’t like, and we are all free to pick and choose. But as I tell my students, just because you like something doesn’t mean that it’s good… and just because something is good doesn’t mean you have to like it. OK, I don’t actually have students, but that sounded like the right thing to say at the moment.

    Where I think you do yourself a disservice, to return to my original criticism of your criticism, is in the way you erect straw men to argue against. In your most recent post on pacing, you concluded with a staggeringly deceptive criticism of the pacing in Ware’s comics, not by addressing the comics themselves, or even the page you selected, but by holding them up against the comments of an anonymous writer. This strikes me as an incredibly dishonest and lazy method of criticism.

    I happen to be of the mind that any given work of art should be judged by its own standards. Good works of art will convey those standards, just as poor ones will crumble under their own weight. You clearly put a lot of thought into works of art that you enjoy and admire, but also seem to be dismissive of any critical effort regarding those that you don’t, and simply view them through the prism of their champions. Would your time not be better spent in yourself being a champion of those works you admire and in ignoring those that you don’t?

  26. Oliver 1000 says:

    “Chris Ware’s comics, which do not employ drawing”

    the FUCK are you talking about?!

  27. Exactly what I wrote: that drawing and cartooning are not the same thing.

  28. Oliver 1000 says:

    No, you said Ware’s comics do not contain drawing, which is moronic.

  29. It stands to reason that if Chris Ware employs cartooning in his comics, and cartooning is not the same thing as drawing, then simple transitive logic would mean his comics don’t employ drawing. Do I really have to spell it out so plainly? This seems like something even a tree stump can grasp.

  30. Oliver 1000 says:

    You’re being completely obtuse and pseudo-pedantic. Have fun with that.

    This comment has no words. These words have no letters. This meaningless knob was not corrected, it was… refined.

  31. Tim Hodler says:

    All right, enough already. This is possibly the most pointlessly drawn-out argument of all time.

  32. Paul Slade says:

    “This is possibly the most pointlessly drawn-out argument of all time.”

    Not even close. You should see the Kirby thread.

  33. Mike Hunter says:

    David Apatoff says:

    I recently heard of someone who said, “I know of no work of art that conveys the complex pleasures of parenthood…in quite the way that Building Stories does.” I was thinking of calling the local Child Protective Services and filing a report….

    David Roel says:
    Can someone explain the child protective services joke?

    One can speculate: is the childrearing on display in “Building Stories” so subpar that the parents should have the law sic’ed on them? Or, is someone who thinks the Ware parents are good parents thereby showing themselves to be so ignorant of what constitutes proper childrearing that THEY should be reported to the local Child Protective Services?

    David Roel says:
    Didn’t Scott McCloud give us a way to avoid (or at least clarify) these conversations?:

    Pretty excellent; thanks! For all the brickbats slung at “Understanding Comics” (“The Comics Journal” featured a cover story dedicated to that purpose), McCloud’s magisterial work — occasional flaws and all — continues to tower as a remarkable achievement.

  34. Mike Hunter says:

    Regarding the larger overall argument here, may I recycle some old postings:

    It’s nonsense to say, as some have elsewhere, that art criticism is utterly subjective; that “Citizen Kane” being better than “Mansquito” is only a matter of personal opinion. There are qualities which, if a work of art possesses them, surely help add to its aesthetic worth:

    – Originality
    – Creative mastery
    – Psychological/intellectual depth and complexity
    – Imagination
    – The effectiveness with which its creator’s intentions are communicated
    …And so forth.

    When perceptive, knowledgeable critics disagree, it’s not that art criticism is wholly subjective; but that, instead, one may particularly value an original approach, though the result is rough around the corners. Another may reject the powerful emotions expressed via Expressionistic art because they believe rendering should be Academically refined and masterful.

    And yet another might – getting into comics here – dismiss the power, inventiveness, historic importance, narrative effectiveness of Jack Kirby’s oeuvre because the stories themselves were aimed at “children”; not “serious art” like the stodgy work of Adrian Tomine.

    Rather than the values which constitute “high art” being subjective, it’s more that the greater weight given certain aesthetic qualities is subjective.

    Likely many don’t go to Kirby comics expecting what one gets from a Ware or Gilberto. What made him great was his unprecedented inventiveness, historic importance and influence, his being a driving force in creating whole genres of comics, the unsurpassed power, strength, and clarity of his storytelling; that he virtually wrote the hyperdynamic “visual language” of superhero comics; his extraordinary visual imagination, only flagging in his final years.

    With all those virtues, there’s much to enjoy. In the same way a luscious culinary concoction may not necessarily be nutritionally sound, yet still can be devoured with relish…

    From the old TCJ message board’s “Kim Thompson Greatest Hits (Happy birthday!)” thread, a comment by the other Fanta head honcho:

    The reason I haven’t yet risen to the defense of Hergé here is because re-reading Paul’s note I’m beginning to realize that we approach art from such radically different perspectives that I don’t know that we can find any common ground. Paul seems to have swallowed the whole sophomoric nonsense about narrative art being somehow “validated” only by the “realism” or “complexity” of the characters, whether or not the material addresses “significant issues,” and so on. By which standard, of course, the worst movie made by John Sayles, the most trivial “intimate character portrait” piece of piffle to come out of Sundance, is better than the best movie made by Howard Hawks — and any second-rate piece of modern “serious” fiction is better than a P.G. Wodehouse novel. And THREE FINGERS is better than POPEYE.

    TINTIN’s characters are flat, yes. The adventures are often silly… But… so what? RIO BRAVO’s characters are all cowboy-movie clichés (played by a gallery of actors who are no one’s idea of thespian greatness: John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin (!), Ricky Nelson (!!), Angie Dickinson), the story is so generic even I don’t remember it… and yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made.

    Complexity and realism of characterization, significance of themes, and all that shit are all vastly overrated as indicators of artistic brilliance by self-anointed critics. There are many, many works, particularly in comics, that feature characters who are ciphers, plots that are silly and trivial, and mean nothing beyond their “adventure” or “comedy” that are among the greatest works ever created. Franquin’s GASTON LAGAFFE, several hundred pages’ worth of gags about a lazy office boy, is better and greater than any comic created anywhere in the world in the last 20 years — and yes, I include the entirety of Fantagraphics’ output.

    TINTIN is rightly perceived as a masterpiece that can be read and enjoyed by anyone, and will be so pretty much forever. …

  35. Oliver_C says:

    If anyone thinks ‘Tintin’ consists of “flat” characters having “silly” adventures, then read what I consider Herge’s masterpiece: ‘The Castafiore Emerald’, a near-plotless yet thoroughly sustained farce in which Herge satirises his own creations, full of postmodern touches (Tintin looking directly at the ‘camera’, repeated depictions of the characters being distorted and misrepresented by mass media).

  36. patrick ford says:

    From the R.C. Harvey article on Eldon Dedini:

    “Lee Lorenz, cartoon editor at The New Yorker for many of the years Dedini’s cartoons were published therein, said: ‘While a million people can draw, very few can cartoon well. To be a cartoonist you have to be a stylist, and that’s not easy to come by. It transcends technique.'”

  37. David Roel says:
  38. Jeet, I will be bowing out of this conversation, which seems to be making a number of commenters very agitated. I previously paraphrased William Blake, “When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those who do.” By now people have pretty much sorted themselves into the former or the latter category, and there is not much to be gained from hanging around as the comments get more and more mean.

    I did want to make this one last comment because I appreciate your positive ending and I think I might narrow the distance between us on a few points by clarifying my views where I appear to have misled you. I will do my best to refrain from using this space to lobbying on behalf of my personal favorites; you are of course welcome to respond to any or all of this as you see fit but I won’t be replying.

    When I asked if you were the new Pythagoras, it was not because you said comics are a narrative art form; I don’t disagree with that. My point was that you sounded amusingly imperious, claiming that I had a “fundamental problem” and that I “don’t understand comics,” then announcing to me which artists are good or bad. I could only assume that, like Pythagoras, you are attuned to the music of the spheres. As far as I’m concerned, it’s quite possible that you are right about the relative merits of Foster and Segar. I don’t have any fundamental objection to that opinion, but I do feel strongly that critics should avoid confusing opinion with fact (and even worse, confusing opinion with thought). When one does assert personal opinions, one had better be prepared to back them up inch by inch. That’s why I always try to offer specific reasons for and examples of what I’m talking about, so readers can see if they agree with me or not. I also try to avoid flinging around childish generalizations such as, “you invariably write nonsense,” because they never persuade anybody of anything (unless you happen to be Pythagoras).

    Second, we are not completely opposite on the importance of emotional commitment to quality in artwork. Of course I agree that people do better work when they are committed. I was making fun of the trendy belief that if an artist confesses their childhood trauma or reveals their psychoses or vomits on a page, their honesty somehow excuses mediocre artistic performance. For me, our real difference is in our different definitions of emotional commitment. In my opinion, Hal Foster (whose draftsmanship leaves me uninspired) was more emotionally committed to Prince Valiant than most of the artists you mention. True, Foster did not pull down his pants to expose his venereal sores to readers, but he invested his life in that strip (and for people with a subtle eye, you can even find his shy confessions that he and his wife liked spanking games.) Similarly, when Leonard Starr was asked what kept him laboring at his drawing board crafting those lovely drawings when he could have gotten away with far less, he said, “if you care about what you’re doing, it’s not work.” For me, it is unbecoming for critics with no understanding of the emotional condition of those artists, and no appreciation for the commitment required for a lifetime of sustained excellence, to casually proclaim that the artist has “no emotional ties to his material.” I think that if you had a more mature understanding of artistic commitment, there would be less space between our views on the importance of commitment.

    Finally, I think you are battling a misapprehension about my taste. You seem to think that I equate “drawing ability” with 1950s photo-realistic soap opera drawing, so you assume I am inconsistent for writing so glowingly about Herriman or Gray. Not to confound you further, but I have also written glowingly about James Thurber, John Cuneo, Lynda Barry, Lichty, Chester Gould, William Steig, Dubuffet, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, insane people, children, visionary artists, and all sorts of unschooled amateurs. All excellent. Once you overcome our current cultural biases, it is not so difficult to recognize there is great quality in both Mort Drucker and Lynda Barry.

    I wish you well; perhaps we will compare notes again someday in a forum that doesn’t require all this typing.

  39. Jeet Heer says:

    @David Apatoff A fine note to end this on! I too will bow out.

  40. Kev Ferrara says:

    I would disagree.

    Rich Little aped other people. The only reason you knew it was Rich Little doing the impersonations is because usually you were looking at his genial head propped on top of a pressed blazer on a TV screen. Otherwise Little would be invisible. He had no personality to speak of. He was a mimic.

    Whereas Mort Drucker’s work looks like Mort Drucker, always. And that’s because of Mort Drucker’s personality. He captured the personality of those he was caricaturing damn well, even though it was filtering through his own personality. That makes him an artist.

  41. Kev Ferrara says:

    Well and passionately put, corky.

  42. Kev Ferrara says:

    Well, not so much in agreement here. A lot of fine distinctions are being elided in your vigor to make your point.

    Give a look at Nicolai Fechin, for starters.

  43. Kev Ferrara says:

    Drucker surely transcends his material. I grew up collecting old Mad Magazines from before I was born. And I loved looking at Drucker’s work on all those parodies of movies I’d never seen and actors I’d never heard of. And I never read theses parodies. It was always about the art for me.

    One of the remarkable things about his gift was the ability to capture consistent likeness from all angles, and to make it all live with his particular brand of comic energy, panel after panel, page after page. So I knew Drucker’s George C. Scott as Patton, before I knew Scott’s Patton. And both portrayals stand on their own as artistic merits, as far as I’m concerned. And the same can be said of many, possibly most, of Drucker’s stable of actors.

  44. Kev Ferrara says:

    I’m fairly sure, Oliver, that your “technical” definition of drawing is only one of several which have seen common use among artists, academics, critics, and lay people. If we recede back into the mists of time, it simply means the dragging of a mark-making utensil over a surface, leaving traces of the medium in its wake. But by the time we get into the Golden Age of Illustration, the word has become defined with a much larger principle embedded in it, that of richness of visual meaning which only deft graphic encoding affords. Which is more than simply accuracy of proportions, angles, or outlines, or the capturing of gesture through cartooning, or any other single quality.

  45. Kev Ferrara says:

    Mort Drucker is like Alex Toth: It was the work of others to provide them with material that was worthy of their talent, and those others fail then it’s on them.

    Declaring something so, does not make it so. I do declare.

  46. Kev Ferrara says:

    Can’t we all just a get along… pole and beat you with it.

  47. Kev Ferrara says:

    McCloud’s categories are his own rationalizations. I personally find them wanting and think they are confused in important ways. I think the fact that McCloud really can’t draw and isn’t an illustrator or fine artist (in the original, non-modern sense) makes him susceptible to missing, misunderstanding, or mischaracterizing anything beyond what he himself can do. Best we all think these things through for ourselves, imo.

  48. Kev Ferrara says:

    Cartooning is one aspect of drawing. /issue

  49. Kev Ferrara says:

    Its an ok book. It may turn on a few lightbulbs. But it is only as smart about art as McCloud is. And he’s a pretty weak artist. He’s a better intellectual than he is an artist, I’d say. Which is exactly why you should be wary of what he contends. And even as an intellectual, he’s a cartoonist. Aesthetics, semiotics, linguistics, visual rhetoric, philosophical notions of form, and how it all applies in artistic composition… he’s just paddling on the surface of that stuff. You want magesterial, read a real philosopher.

  50. Mike Hunter says:

    Kev Ferrara says:

    [“Understanding Comics” is] an ok book….as an intellectual, [McCloud is] a cartoonist. Aesthetics, semiotics, linguistics, visual rhetoric, philosophical notions of form, and how it all applies in artistic composition… he’s just paddling on the surface of that stuff. You want magesterial, read a real philosopher.

    Rather than magisterial, if you want “building ideological castles in the air” — which have bupkis to do with cartooning or creating and understanding comics, the way flesh-and-blood humans deal with that in the mere physical realm — a “real philosopher” is the person for the job.

  51. Kev Ferrara says:

    Mike, my experience with deep aesthetic theory trumps your presumptions about it. Which is to say, I assume you either haven’t read in the discipline, or you have only skimmed a bit of Kant or Hegel or something in a survey class, then skipped to some “important” modernist talking out his “a posteriori”. I personally have found aesthetics to be the most profound material I have ever swam in, even more so than physics and biology, by a nose. And it has been revelatory for me both about the nature of art and the practice of my own.

    It may not be for you, however, I grant. And it is tough going, because so much of it is difficult reading, wrongheaded, incomplete, and/or overly dogmatic. But calling bullshit on a 2000 year old human project to understand Art is the real bullshit.

    There’s gold in them thar hills. But you won’t find it heckling from the cantina.

  52. Oliver_C says:

    Approach ‘Understanding Comics’ as you would the similarly pioneering work of film critics/historians Terry Ramsaye, Francois Truffaut and Andrew Sarris: yes there are errors of both omission and logic, but McCloud’s ambition and scope deserve praise.

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